Plastic recycling could sink or swim with Australia’s planned packaging laws

24 June 2024

By Raphael Geminder (Chair – Pact Group)

Australians have always been great recyclers. But recycling cannot just be a feel-good exercise for the community. This is about collecting and recycling discarded material from millions of kerbside collection bins and container deposit schemes and remaking it into new packaging here in Australia.

The more we do it, the more jobs we create, the less waste we send to landfill, and the better overall it is for the sustainability of our environment.

To take Australia’s recycling industry to the next level, we need a shift in thinking across government, industry and society so that discarded plastic packaging is treated as a valuable resource as opposed to waste.

With plans afoot for new National Packaging Laws agreed to by Federal and State Environment Ministers, the Albanese government could make or break Australia’s plastic recycling industry.

At the heart of the planned laws are packaging design standards based on the principle of minimising waste and environmental impacts so that all packaging is made using recycled material and can be recovered, recycled, and remanufactured after it’s been used.

As Chair of Pact Group one of Australia’s leading plastic packaging and recycling companies, I wholeheartedly support the intent of the planned laws when it comes to plastic.  Plastic packaging that is designed effectively, made with recycled material, is recyclable and then recycled and remanufactured properly can stay in the circular economy almost indefinitely.

But there are concerns in the local recycling sector about potential unintended consequences if the planned laws and design standards do not adequately incentivise the use of Australian-made recycled products.

Unless the government provides proper support for local recyclers, Australia runs the risk of being swamped with cheap, imported unregulated recycled products that could seriously jeopardise domestic producers and manufacturers.

Australian businesses like Pact Group, with the support of government, have invested significantly in plastic recycling infrastructure to support the growth of a domestic circular economy.  This has led to the construction and upgrade of five large-scale plastic recycling facilities that process used packaging from container deposit schemes and kerbside collection bins.

This recycled plastic material is then used to manufacture new plastic beverage bottles, and food, household and industrial packaging, which in turn can be recycled and remanufactured, keeping thousands of tonnes of used plastic packaging in circulation and out of landfill.

However, recycled plastic resins and packaging made in Australia are already competing with cheaper imported products, both virgin and recycled, predominantly produced in Asia.

For the domestic sector to thrive and to ensure industry has the confidence to continue investing, locally produced recycled material cannot be undermined by cheap products imported by businesses seeking to comply with new packaging design standards.

When it comes to drafting the new National Packaging Laws, the Government will need to ensure there are mechanisms to incentivise the use of recycled content made in Australian facilities from used packaging waste collected in Australia.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel in this regard. The UK and EU have implemented a plastic levy based on the percentage of recycled content used in packaging as a way of encouraging increased use of recycled materials in packaging, discouraging the use of virgin resin and stimulating the local circular economy.

The EU has also just passed laws which oblige all importers of recycled resins and packaging to meet strict EU environmental standards. Implementing something similar in Australia would ensure the local recycling and packaging manufacturing industry is not disadvantaged by either rogue domestic operators or the importation of cheaper materials from overseas facilities where environmental, health and labour standards may not meet Australian standards.

With the right regulatory support from government, there is an opportunity for Australia to become a regional circular economy hub for the mass production and export of high-quality food-grade recycled resins and recycled plastic packaging.

This is how a strong, local circular economy operate

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