Circular economy for packaging

Tuesday, 20 June, 2023

Circular economy for packaging

Australia’s packaging will soon be subject to strict new government rules aimed at boosting a circular economy, thanks to agreement at a national meeting of environment ministers in June this year.

While voluntary targets and design guidelines to reduce the impact of packaging have been in place for some time and many companies have been doing great work, there are still three million tonnes of packaging sent to landfill each year, so the government needed to do more.

The ministers have now agreed to mandatory packaging design standards and targets — including for recycled content and to address the use of harmful chemicals in food packaging.

The rules will be designed to help make sure packaging waste is minimised in the first place, and where packaging is used it is designed to be recovered, reused, recycled or reprocessed.

Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek said: “Even large companies like Nestlé, Unilever and Coca-Cola have told me they want to see regulation to help the world reach a circular economy.”

Making the rules mandatory will put the onus on the companies responsible for producing packaging to take responsibility for their waste.

Dr Anya Phelan, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at Griffith Business School, Griffith University, said the announcement was a significant step in the right direction to tackle plastic pollution.

“Mandating producer responsibility and making industry responsible for the packaging they place on the market sets a remarkable precedent as it is the first of its kind in Australia, demonstrating the government’s commitment to addressing the pressing issue of waste and boosting recycling efforts,” Phelan said.

Jennifer Macklin, Senior Researcher at Monash Sustainable Development Institute’s BehaviourWorks Australia, said achieving any broad-scale shifts in established practice through voluntary change is challenging.

“Australia’s packaging industry has implemented many valuable changes under the Packaging Covenant, including developing a new Framework of Packaging Sustainability, implementing an industry-wide system to assess and improve the recyclability of packaging, implementing an on-pack recyclability label, developing an action plan to phase out PFAS, supporting research around reusable packaging and compostable food packaging.

“However, the barriers to system transformations such as required for packaging are substantial, and many are external to individual businesses and industries. These include safety regulation, the need to preserve food and reduce food waste, differences in recycling eligibility rules across and within Australia’s states and territories and entrenched consumer preferences and habits. Overcoming such systemic barriers takes significant time, effort and coordination.

“Regulation and mandatory requirements have been shown to be effective in speeding up such transitions, by ensuring, for example, that expectations are clear, all players are working towards the same outcomes and free riding is limited. Minimum design standards and extended producer responsibility are both utilised internationally, including in the UK and Europe, and it is a great sign to see Australia is now beginning to adopt such approaches in our transition to a circular economy.

“Nonetheless, care will be needed to ensure the regulations and their timing are appropriate to the context and don’t leave the entirety of responsibility of overcoming the system barriers on any one industry. Particularly, it will be critical to ensure that such regulations are accompanied by other policy support that addresses the major challenges facing the industry. This should include, for example, a timeline for introducing mandatory minimum recycled content targets in federal and state government procurement in line with the announced design standards, which will increase the ‘demand side’ on the equation in line with these new ‘supply side’ requirements.”

The Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) has welcomed the commitment made by Australia’s Environment Ministers to support a circular economy for packaging.

“We applaud Australia’s environment ministers for their decision to regulate packaging design, with the aim of achieving important targets for reuse, recyclability and recycled content,” said Suzanne Toumbourou, CEO of ACOR. “A stronger regulatory framework, which promotes circular design and ensures robust end markets for recycled materials, is essential for a sustainable recycling system.”

Currently, the recycling sector contributes almost $19 billion in economic value and sustains over 90,000 jobs, surpassing Australia’s economic growth rate by over 1.5 times in the past year.

“The recycling sector is an integral link in the circular supply chain. We look forward to collaborating across industries and with governments to achieve and exceed the National Packaging Targets, while also fostering great economic benefits for Australia,” Toumbourou said.

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