Spotlight on plastics

Feb 17, 2020

This feature length article provides a spotlight on circular economy efforts to reduce, recycle and reform waste plastic in Australia and overseas.

By Stuart Snell

The decision by the Council of Australian Governments in August 2019 to stop the nation exporting mixed waste plastic overseas by 2021 and process it domestically, has led to a lot of soul searching from industry and governments.

As reported in this background article published by The Conversation, the ban follows a decision in China for it to stop in 2018 accepting the waste of other countries. Even though this was flagged by China since 2013, a lot of scrambling has been underway to prepare for this change.

Many countries have been caught napping and only this month Italy was told by the European Union to stop sending its waste plastics to Malaysia.

Australian plastic waste targets

A leading proponent in the effort in Australia to address the waste plastics problem here is the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO).

APCO CEO Brooke says Australia has responded to these and other global changes with the development of the 2025 National Packaging Targets – announced by industry and government in 2018 to develop a sustainable approach to packaging in Australia.

The overarching target is for 100 per cent of packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and businesses across the country are responding to the challenge by asking what operational changes they need to make in order to drive this transformation.

Building a circular economy approach to packaging is about moving away from the “linear” and traditional “take-make-dispose” model to one that is regenerative, or circular, by design.

Over 1500 businesses – including a range of FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) organisations and their suppliers – are working with APCO to optimise their packaging sustainability and supporting the delivery of the 2025 targets.

Collectively these businesses represent some $360 billion in annual revenue in the Australian marketplace. And in the last 12 months from within this group we are starting to see real leadership and innovation to drive improved sustainable outcomes.

Coles and Woolworths’ decision to phase out single-use plastic bags has translated to an 80 per cent drop in the consumption of plastic bags nationwide – preventing billions of bags from entering the environment.

In the manufacturing community, Pact Group is another organisation that’s leading the way with recycled content, as the largest user of recycled resin in the southern hemisphere. The team is currently conducting an exciting new research trial to explore the use of recycled milk bottle plastic content in the manufacture of wheelie bins – with up to 250 milk bottles (the average use of every Australian household) used to manufacture each bin.

Coca-Cola checks in to circular

Coca-Cola recently revealed the extent of its global plastic use for the first time, something only a handful of large FMCG corporations have been willing to admit.

A staggering 3 million tonnes of plastic packaging each year, the equivalent of 200,000 bottles a minute.

Its World Without Waste goals for 2030 include achieving 50 per cent recycled content across its packaging, 100 per cent recyclability across its packaging and recycling as many bottles and cans as it sells.

Australia was the first country in the world to unveil all standard Coke Classic bottles in 100 per cent recycled plastic

As part of its global World Without Waste vision, Coca-Cola aims to collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one that is sold by 2030. The beverage giant is working with NGOs and utilising the container deposit scheme – now in NSW, SA, Queensland and soon to be operating in Victoria – to help make this vision a reality.

Coca-Cola is working with NGOs in the community on initiatives to collect the plastic

Dr Kate Raynes-Goldie, award-winning designer & keynote speaker says: “The invention of plastics at the start of the 20th Century was one of the key factors to creating a disposable society.

“Plastics and other inventions like the factory assembly line meant products could be made cheaply and packaging thrown away.

“This led to rubbish literally piling up and becoming a visible problem. Then a turning, or tipping, point occurred.

“The Keep America Beautiful campaign was launched in the United States in the 1950s. It encouraged people to “properly” dispose of litter rather than throwing it on the ground.

“Anti-littering campaigns took off globally, including Keep Australia Beautiful in 1963. But these popular anti-littering campaigns have less ecofriendly origins than you may expect.

“Keep America Beautiful was started by Coca Cola and the Dixie Cup Company. It was a way to shift responsibility for disposing of single-use plastics from the manufacturer to the consumer.

“The circular economy places that responsibility back on companies. In so doing, large, systematic change is possible.”

So what is happening in other countries?

Global tourism initiative to combat plastic pollution

The Global Tourism Plastics Initiative was in January officially announced by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Through its New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, the initiative unites businesses, governments, and other organisations behind a common vision and targets, aiming to address plastic waste and pollution at its source.

Signatories include companies representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally, as well as governments, NGOs, universities, industry associations, investors, and other organisations.

The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment is led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with the UN Environment Program.

Publicity surrounding the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative described it as ground-breaking and ambitious in its goals. It aims to reduce the amount of plastic pollution caused by the tourism sector.

To achieve this vision, tourism companies and destinations will be required to make a set of concrete and actionable commitments by 2025, including to:

  • Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and items by 2025
  • Take action to move from single-use to reuse models or reusable alternatives by 2025
  • Engage the value chain to move towards 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable
  • Take action to increase the amount of recycled content across all plastic packaging and items used
  • Commit to collaborate and invest to increase the recycling and composting rates for plastics
  • Report publicly and annually on progress made towards these targets.

Plastic pollution is one of the major environmental challenges of our time, and tourism has an important role to play in contributing to the solution.

Introducing the initiative, UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “The Global Tourism Plastics Initiative is a unique opportunity for tourism companies and destinations to step forward and lead the global effort addressing plastic pollution. Frontrunning tourism companies and destinations will set quantifiable targets as part of the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative and accelerate the transformation of the tourism sector towards more integrated solutions and circular business models.”

The Initiative is a key activity of the Sustainable Tourism Program of the One Planet Network and it acts as the interface for the tourism sector of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Nestlé takes action

Australia’s largest food manufacturer and global company Nestlé has thrown its weight behind the circular economy movement with a massive commitment in January to cut back on the use of virgin plastic for packaging and to use recycled materials in its products.

The Swiss company, which operates six large factories in Australia, has committed $2.5 billion globally to cover the extra cost of utilising recycled food-grade plastic in its food wrappers and allocated more than $375 million to new packaging ventures.

Its commitment will create a market for food-grade recycled plastic, which is difficult to produce and in limited supply.

In 2018 Nestlé committed to make 100 per cent of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, and will now aim to cut its use of virgin plastics by a third in the same time frame.

It also has a global of zero net greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050.

The company said in a January statement: “Nestlé is therefore committed to sourcing up to two million metric tons of food-grade recycled plastics and allocating more than CHF 1.5 billion to pay a premium for these materials between now and 2025.

“Nestlé will seek operational efficiencies to keep this initiative earnings neutral.”

The company’s sustainable packaging venture fund will invest in start-up companies that focus on new packaging materials and systems.

Converting plastic and polystyrene into durable railway sleepers

According to Victorian company Integrated Recycling, which has been operating a factory at Mildura since 2010, a kilometre of railway track laid with its Duratrack railway sleepers uses 64 t of recycled plastic.

The sleepers are 85 per cent made of recycled material, a mix of “polystyrene and agricultural plastic waste, including cotton bale wrap, vineyard covers and pipe from the mining industry”.

They also have a lifespan of 50 years, compared to 14 years for timber, and are resistant to rot, fungus and termites.

In June, 190 of these sleepers were installed at Melbourne’s Richmond Station for an 18-month trial. It continues the apparent progress towards mainstream use of recycled composite sleepers.

It started with a trial project supported by Public Transport Victoria (PTV) on recycled plastic sleepers for Tourist and Heritage (T&H) railways.

The shortage of timber for sleepers and the resulting high maintenance demands from using secondhand sleepers has forced operators to rethink their options. The outcome of this project was the development of guidelines for testing plastic sleepers to ensure adequate performance within T&H railways.

Norway leads the way

With its 97 percent recycling rate, Norway is 10 years ahead of the EU’s 2029 target date, by when countries must recycle at least 90 percent of their plastic bottles.

That compares to barely 60 percent in France and in the UK, which is considering a deposit system.

The deposit system is widely viewed as the key to the Nordic country’s success.

Customers pay a few extra cents when they buy a drink in a plastic bottle, and they’re refunded that amount when they return their empties.

“When you have a deposit on the empties, you actually tell the consumers that they buy the product but they borrow the packaging,” explains Kjell Olav Maldum, the head of Infinitum, a company created by manufacturers and distributors to run the deposit scheme.

More than 1.1 billion plastic bottles and aluminium cans were returned in 2018 at collection points in supermarkets, petrol stations and small shops.

In Fetsund, about 30 kilometres northeast of Oslo, a steady stream of trucks dump thousands of empties at a time at Infinitum’s main processing centre.

 

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