On March 4, the Australian government's Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment launched the National Plastics Plan 2021 (NPP) after about a year of development. The plan makes a sweeping set of changes to existing products, recycling, and novel materials.
In this blog, we highlight key changes in the NPP and rate their impact. The plan has five core sections – prevention, recycling, plastics in our daily lives, plastics in oceans and waterways, and research, innovation, and data – and we present the changes in the same manner.
This set of changes focuses on reducing consumption & eliminating problematic plastics.
- Ban on oxo-degradable plastics: Oxo-degradable plastics contribute to microplastics and are being phased out globally.
- Ban on EPS loose fill (packing peanuts) and molded EPS in consumer packaging (meat trays).
- Ban on PVC packaging labels.
IMPACT: HIGH. The bans on oxo-degradable plastics and EPS are not unique, but they further global consensus toward the phaseout of these materials and create opportunities for new materials, especially as a replacement for EPS. The ban on PVC labels will have less impact in pure volumetric terms, but it does highlight the need for labeling solutions with good end-of-life properties.
This section focuses not just on increasing recycling rates but also on increasing recycled content usage & encouraging more careful management of all plastic waste.
- 50% recycled content target for plastic packaging. This is only a modest increase from the existing 39% rate reported in the plan.
- Specific materials targets for recycling rates (30% for PET, 20% for HDPE and PP). The PP target is the most ambitious here, as there's a lack of PP recycling capacity globally.
- A ban on mixed plastic waste shipments. This is already handled by the Basel Convention, which effectively bans shipments of mixed waste.
- $600 million in investment in recycling through the Recycling Modernisation Fund. It's unclear how this will be spent, but direct investment in infrastructure is necessary.
IMPACT: MEDIUM. The biggest change (bans on exports) already took place through the recent reclassification of mixed plastic waste by the Basel Convention. The recycled content targets are ambitious, but it remains to be seen what sort of teeth are put in place to create this change.
Plastics in our daily lives:
This section focuses on consumer education, packaging design, and waste collection.
- Roll out the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) on both consumer and B2B packaging, targeting 80% of grocery items by 2023.
- Harmonize curbside collection of recyclables across the nation and make it more consistent. Australia generally has a commingled curbside collection system in which recyclables are all mixed together but separated from general waste.
- Combat greenwashing by identifying companies making false or misleading claims and referring them to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for investigation.
- Implement container deposit schemes.
IMPACT: LOW. While better labels and collection will help boost recycling rates somewhat, the main issue – commingled collection of recyclables – is not addressed. Commingled collection is simpler for consumers than the complex waste sorting schemes used in countries like Germany, but consumer separation creates much higher-quality waste streams. Commingled collection puts a substantial limitation on achievable recycling rates. It's possible that some of the money in the recycling section above will go toward the better education needed to enable separate curbside collection streams, but major change is unlikely. It also remains to be seen how well the actions against greenwashing work, but governments have historically not had much success combating this issue.
Plastics in our oceans and waterways:
This section tackles littering, microplastics, and water quality issues.
- Introduce filters for microplastics on home and commercial washing machines by 2030.
- Pursue coordinated global action on microplastics.
- Create a national Plastics Pollution Database to track plastic pollution in Australia.
IMPACT: LOW. In addition to the above, there are many programs aimed at specific cleanup activities. The most potentially impactful change here is the mandate of microplastics filtering, but its long implementation timeline will limit near-term effects. Sources of microplastic pollution like polyester textiles go largely unaddressed.
Research, innovation, and data:
This section focuses on funding for data collection and technology development.
- Build a public waste data visualization platform.
- Invest $29 million in recycling innovation.
- Continue to conduct plastic recycling surveys that map the flow of plastic waste in Australia.
IMPACT: LOW. There's already a fair bit of funding for recycling research in Australia through CISRO and other governmental agencies, but the overall level of investment called out in the plan is low. In addition, while public-facing databases are good, the real use for data is in solving the logistical challenges around waste collection, sorting, and management. This plan represents a missed opportunity to make a stronger play in fundamental R&D or infrastructure.
Australia's NPP demonstrates both the potential and pitfalls of government regulations. It makes some clear impacts, most notably with bans on certain plastics, but fails to address some crucial areas – most notably collection – that are really only within the power of government to fix. It's no surprise that the most impactful changes are also some of the easiest to implement – bans are very simple, at least for governments – and the missed opportunities are largely within the much more complex system of waste collection and sorting. Ultimately, the NPP does not go far enough: It will likely lead to modest gains in recycling rates (depending on implementation), but without changes to waste collection, it won't enable Australia to substantially avoid landfilling or incineration of plastic waste.