OPINION: Stop the packaging scourge

Published on Tue 15 February 2022 9:09am

As with any piece of ineffective regulation, the existing framework is not only failing to deliver on its aims, but is allowing free-riders to avoid responsibility and gain a benefit over those companies that do the right thing.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Tuesday, 15 February 2021. 

Over the summer the Morrison government unveiled a risible social media campaign video about the creation of a ‘Remade in Australia’ brand. If only the brand existed in real life. If only there was a process by which companies that incorporate recycled material in their products could apply to use such a brand. If only there was an effective scheme that encouraged and monitored change to reduce waste, especially when it comes to packaging.

Packaging can have a genuine purpose and value, but too much of it is unnecessary, badly designed, and harmful to the environment. It is estimated that 44 per cent of all plastic waste is packaging, which in turn makes up 83 per cent of the dangerous trash in our oceans. That simply cannot continue.

Every day we encounter packaging that can so easily be eliminated or replaced by material that is recycled and capable of being recycled again. But right now there is no market-wide impetus for addressing the scourge of pointless and harmless packaging, and no reward for companies that show leadership in that cause.

We absolutely need to reduce packaging waste and insist upon resource circularity in preference to the current linear model that sees material used once, very briefly, and dumped into the environment. We need to ensure that where packaging is required, it is designed to be reused or recycled, especially if it’s plastic. Indeed, plastic packaging should be increasingly rare, and it should be comprised of recycled plastic. Despite recognising the problem some time ago, Australia has made little progress towards these objectives.

The latest data show that plastic waste is growing, while recycling rates are low and stagnant, and the government’s national packaging targets are badly off-track. A report commissioned last year by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) found that on our current trajectory we will barely achieve half the stated target of recycling 70 per cent of plastic packaging by 2025.

There is also a target to ensure that plastic packaging contains on average 20 per cent recycled material. On the most recent numbers that rate actually fell from 4 to 3 per cent. Clearly the target will not be achieved.

In Australia, relevant companies with turnover above $5 million are required to join and conform to the requirements of APCO, or else be subject to equivalent requirements under state/territory law.  Unfortunately, this well-meant arrangement is dysfunctional, opaque, and ineffective. While the two-tiered system is theoretically mandatory and should cover all liable entities, it has in effect been optional and of minimal patchwork value. Until very recently there was a paltry uptake of APCO membership, and regulatory action by the states and territories was virtually non-existent. APCO has no meaningful compliance powers, and the states and territories have not reported any formal enforcement action.

After delaying the 5-year review of the current co-regulatory scheme, the Morrison government was recently forced to publish its outcome, whose conclusion in sober consultant terms can accurately be called damning: “The Review has identified that key elements of the [scheme] have not been implemented or have not been operationalised effectively. This has created a lack of clarity for brand owners, enabled free-riders, reduced confidence in the scheme, and meant there is limited data available about the success of the co-regulatory arrangement.”

In other words: Australia’s regulation of packaging simply hasn’t worked, and yet we have no idea what’s really happening because we’ve not collected detailed information. As the Review states, “reliable, comparable data about consumption, recycling, and recovery is not available across the co-regulatory arrangement.”

Sadly, an industry peak body observed that the Review marked the first time many businesses realised they had mandatory obligations with respect to the pursuit of sustainable packaging.

As with any piece of ineffective regulation, the existing framework is not only failing to deliver on its aims, but is allowing free-riders to avoid responsibility and gain a benefit over those companies that do the right thing.  One business submission stated, “The scheme currently has layers of complexity that are impossible for businesses to understand.”

Not surprisingly, the Review’s key recommendation is to establish a national agreement for the creation of a new packaging scheme, with nationally consistent obligations on liable entities, and a centralised administration. To be honest, that has been pretty obvious to everyone for some time.  It was a great shame that the government ignored this issue at the time of landing its much-vaunted waste and recycling legislation. Labor put forward amendments to address the failure of product stewardship arrangements with respect to packaging, but they were rejected.

It says a lot about the Morrison government that it has studiously ignored and delayed an opportunity to show leadership in taking on the work of serious reform in this space. Australia can and needs to do much better when it comes to plastic packaging. The community has been calling for that change, business is looking for a fair and consistent regulatory environment, and the resource management industry is ready to deliver new jobs and innovation in the circular economy.

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