Does Australia have what it takes to tackle plastic pollution?

As we head towards the halfway mark of 2022, it begs the question, with two and half years to go, is enough being done to meet the 2025 Packaging Targets? Based on the current progress, the answer is no. So, will Australia make a concerted push towards the finish line?

In 2018 the Australian Government established the four 2025 National Packaging Targets to be achieved by 2025:

  • 100 percent of packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • 70 percent of plastic packaging being recycled or composted
  • 50 percent of average recycled content included in packaging
  • The phase out of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) is charged with delivering the industry-led targets, as well as an additional target, to achieve 20 percent recycled content in plastic packaging, with specific targets for polyethylene (30 percent), high-density polyethylene (20 percent), and polypropylene (20 percent). Based on the current results, Australia’s progress towards the first target has gone backwards by 2 percent, progress towards the second has plateaued, progress towards the third has increased by only 4 percent and whilst progress against the fourth is improving with all eight state and territories having now banned lightweight plastic bags as of 1 June 2022, only four (ACT, QLD, SA and WA) currently have some form of single-use ban in place, with NSW scheduled to join later this year, and VIC in early 2023 (see table below on States and Territories Commitments).

Source: APCO 2021 Collective Impact Report

In addition to the 2025 targets, The ANZPAC Plastics Pact brought together 100 leading businesses, government, and supply chain stakeholders to work collaboratively across the Oceania region. The ANZPAC is part of Ellen McArthur Foundations (EMF) global Plastic Pact Network, which seeks to align global efforts on plastic pollution

On 2 March 2022, we saw renewed global focus towards addressing plastic pollution, with 175 nations voting in favour of the UN resolution for a legally binding agreement to cover the whole life cycle of plastic by 2024.

So, we have a pact, targets, and a future global binding agreement, but what is actually being done? We are fast running out of time and edging closer to a world where plastic could outweigh fish in our oceans.

It’s important to note that plastics are an essential part of our life, whether we like it or not. Plastics have incredible properties, making them far better in many applications than alternative products and without them we would struggle to mass produce cars, phones, and electronics at the current global scale.

Plastics or synthetic polymers do not occur naturally and are produced through chemical processes and are incredibly durable.  For example, phones from the 1930’s made from the first synthetic polymer, Leo Baekeland’s ‘Bakelite’ can still be found in working order. Living plastic-free is almost impossible in our current society; but living without single-use plastics is well within our means.

It is single-use plastics that are the most concerning type of plastic, with most plastic packaging only being used once leading to approx. $80-$120bn in lost economic value each year.

So how is Australia doing on the single-use plastics front? A lot of progress has been made in the last few years, and by 2023, every state in Australia will have some form of ban on single-use items, and a container deposit scheme.

Source: Adapted from AMCS Australian State / Territory Commitments and Lexology Overview of Single-Use Plastic Bans.

What else needs to be done to meet the targets? What are the barriers to addressing Australia’s remaining 800,000 tonnes of packaging that is not recyclable by design? Key stakeholders across the packaging ecosystem must all play their part. Potential options include:

  • Government: pursue regulatory instruments and consider making some requirements mandatory (e.g. single-use plastic bans, mandating the APCO targets) and consider procurement targets to expand markets for recycled products
  • Producers and packaging manufacturers: design with end-of-life (reuse / recycling) in mind (e.g. pursue single monomer packaging, like the first kerbside recyclable stand up pouch]) and show their commitment to the 2011 National Environmental Protection Measure (NEPM) by becoming a member of APCO
  • Retailers: use their purchasing power to drive change in the brands they stock to encourage the avoidance of packaging, or use of smarter packaging design and recycled materials
  • Industry associations: support producers and brands in making the shift towards different packaging options and promote government targets and goals
  • Material sorters and processors: continue to explore advances in technology to tackle existing plastic waste, and improve recovery options (e.g. advanced infrared spectroscopy sorting to separate materials and achieve cleaner materials streams with higher value applications)
  • Consumers: use their wallets to increase demand for products with better packaging (e.g. choosing products with the Australasian Recycling Label) as well as correctly sorting recyclables to reduce contamination in kerbside recycling

The only way we can meet the 2025 Packaging Targets is for all players to work together and embrace circularity throughout the packaging lifecycle.


4 thoughts on “Does Australia have what it takes to tackle plastic pollution?

  1. Elise – thank you for this update. Fascinating to see where each State is at (as of Wednesday 1 June, lightweight plastic bags are done in NSW – yah!). It’s a journey, but an essential one for our environment. As consumers, we can definitely do more by saying no to plastic whenever possible. Leonie

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