Industry will be forced to do more to cut waste and boost recycling after Australia’s federal and state governments agreed for the first time to impose mandatory packaging rules on manufacturers and retailers.
The agreement, at a meeting of environment ministers in Sydney on Friday, was welcomed by conservationists as a major breakthrough after years of voluntary industry action has failed to reduce waste.
The federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the “historic agreement” meant packaging would be “subject to strict new government rules”.
A communique released after the meeting said a new regulatory scheme would shift the country towards a circular economy that would minimise waste and lead to materials being “recovered, reused, recycled and reprocessed”.
It promised compulsory rules for packaging design based on international best practice and that harmful chemicals and contaminants would be regulated out. A roadmap would be developed to “harmonise” kerbside waste collection across the country and a framework for recycled content traceability would be introduced to give business confidence to use recycled materials, it said.
Plibersek said while some in the industry had voluntarily reduced their impact, it had been “just not enough”. An official review in April found Australia was recycling just 18% of plastic packaging, and would fall well short of a target of 70% by 2025.
The minister said the call for regulation had been supported by some major companies including Nestlé, Unilever and Coca-Cola.
“We need to dramatically reduce packaging waste, and the harmful chemicals that destroy our environment. We see packaging in the guts of dead birds, floating in our oceans, destroying nature as it takes generations to degrade,” she said. “Put simply, we’re making too much, using too much, and too much is ending up in landfill.”
The Boomerang Alliance, a coalition of 55 environment groups, said the agreement was the first “substantial and meaningful step” to deal with waste in 20 years.
“This is absolutely the right decision, and a key first step to tackle the growing waste and plastic pollution harming the oceans and climate,” the alliance’s director, Jeff Angel, said.
“Mandatory standards for recycled content and targets are essential to create the economic rationale for new recycling and reprocessing plants. New rules to minimise wasteful packaging will also help tackle the plastic waste and pollution tidal wave projected by the UN.”
Angel said the agreement needed to be followed by “a comprehensive product stewardship scheme” that forced industry to pay for collection and recycling programs.
He said it must avoid the mistakes of the failed REDcycle scheme, which led to 12,000 tonnes of soft plastics collected at supermarkets being stockpiled in warehouses across three states while consumers were told it was being recycled.
Much of Australia’s recyclable rubbish was sent overseas until August 2019, when then prime minister Scott Morrison announced a ban on the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres. Coalition and Labor governments subsequently announced hundreds of millions in funding for recycling facilities, but until now resisted rules that ensured they would be viable.
The announcement comes amid a global push to cut plastic use. Plibersek attended negotiations in Paris on a proposed global plastic treaty earlier this month.
The Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association, representing companies that deal with rubbish and recycling, welcomed an agreement, saying it meant there would “finally be real action” on packaging.
The association’s chief executive, Gayle Sloan, said it was “a great start” and “the first step on the path to creating the level playing field industry desperately needs between virgin and recycled materials”.
The environment group World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia said the agreement would “have a major impact on Australia’s plastic pollution crisis”.