Plibersek steps in to cut packaging waste in rebuke to industry efforts


Environment ministers led by federal Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek have stepped in to force mandatory action to reduce and recycle packaging in a strong rebuke for the pace of adopting recycling by the packaging industry.

The ministers threatened to take similar mandatory rules to the textile and clothing sector if it did not address the issue of waste.

The ministers agreed in a joint communique to a national framework to direct Australia’s transition to a circular economy, informed by the work of the Circular Economy Advisory Group.

The ministers said this was intended to make industry responsible for the packaging they place on the market. It would also regulate out harmful chemicals and other contaminants in packaging.

The historic agreement struck at a national meeting of environment ministers on Friday will soon see packaging subjected to strict new government rules aimed at cutting waste and boosting recycling.

These new rules will 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, according to a statement.

Plibersek said governments had decided to work together to ‘protect nature and reverse decline’.

She 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.

“Until now, governments have ignored calls to step in and set mandatory targets.

“While some in the industry have stepped up to voluntarily reduce their impact, it’s just not enough – we’re changing that.”

The rules will include mandatory packaging design standards and targets – including for recycled content and to address the use of harmful chemicals in food packaging.

This is about designing out packaging waste from the start, Plibersek said in a statement. More than 70 per cent of the environmental impacts of an item are locked in at the design stage, before anyone ever purchases a product, and well before reuse or disposal is considered.

Plibersek said: “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.

“Put simply, we’re making too much, using too much, and too much is ending up in landfill.

While industry has formed an Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), and companies such as Pact Group are investing heaving in boosting recycling, Plibersek’s statement said: “It’s clear that voluntary targets and design guidelines aren’t working.”

Three million tonnes of packaging is sent to landfill each year – equivalent to around 200 billion chip packets.

“We have plastic packaging littering our oceans, choking animals, and taking up to 1,000 years to break down in landfill.

“(The) agreement shows that environment ministers are working overtime to make up for the nine wasted years under the previous federal Liberal-National Government. Sadly, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments did nothing serious to reduce waste or boost recycling.”

At the same environment minister’s meeting it was also agreed to:

  • Send the textile and clothing sector a clear message that if they don’t take responsibility for their waste by the middle of 2024, Australian governments will regulate, as they are now doing for packaging
  • Develop a national roadmap to improve harmonisation of kerbside collection, for ministers to consider in 2024
  • And support priority renewables and critical minerals projects to balance protecting our environment with faster, clearer decisions.

Further reading:
Action plan to eliminate single-use packaging
Pact Group in $500 million recycling pledge

Picture: Tanya Plibersek

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