While Australia has begun a long journey toward upping its use of biodegradable plastics and introducing more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes, there is much to be done to alter consumer perceptions of plastics, industry bodies say.
A national plastics recycling survey shows a rise of only 2.2 percent in the volume of plastics recycled in Australia since the previous survey, about a year ago.
The Melbourne-based Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association commissioned independent, multinational research group Hyder Consulting plc to conduct its 10th survey. London-based Hyder gathered data for the 2009-10 financial year on consumption, recovery, reprocessing and applications for used plastics in Australia. Previous surveys gathered data on a calendar-year basis.
In 2009-10, Australia recovered 635.4 million pounds of plastics, or 13.6 million pounds more than the previous year and 266 million pounds more plastic than a decade ago. Of the 2009-10 total, about 52 percent was reprocessed at 73 sites in Australia, with the rest exported overseas.
Of the total plastics recycled, packaging made up 434 million pounds, a 3.5 percent decline from 2008; but there was an increase in low density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and expandable PS packaging, which together accounted for 28.8 percent of total packaging recycled.
In 2000, when data first began to be collected, plastics consumption was 3.37 billion pounds. The latest survey recorded consumption at just 3.31 billion pounds, which PACIA CEO Margaret Donnan attributed partly to better design and lightweighting.
She also cited better consumer education, col- lection systems that take a wider range of plastics from a growing number of locations, recycling investments and market development.
“Ten years of robust data demonstrates strong positive results and highlights commitment and action by industry, governments and the community to work together to improve the recovery of plastics for a second life,” she said.
While keen to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the plastics industry worries that its competitive advantages could be eroded if the Australian government implements its proposed fixed price on carbon, followed by a move to a full emissions trading system in several years.
PACIA President Ross McCann told an industry meeting that the trade group has “long supported action to address the challenge of climate change.”
He said policy responses to climate change must be linked internationally or there is “a very real risk” of undermining the industry's long-term viability in Australia. “Trade in chemicals and plastics is truly global; our competitors are not just Europe and the U.S., or even China. They are found throughout Asia and the Middle East, and this trend is increasing,” he said.
The industry is “strongly focused on reducing emissions and its broader environmental footprint,” said McCann, who is also executive chairman of Melbourne-based Qenos Pty. Ltd., a subsidiary of China National Bluestar (Group) Co. Ltd. and Australia's sole producer of PE.
Qenos is replacing a steam boiler at its 255-acre manufacturing site in the Melbourne suburb of Altona, with a 21-megawatt cogeneration unit due to come on-line in mid-2012. The company said the plant will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 100,000 metric tons a year. The unit will meet the firm's electricity demand and more than a third of its steam requirements, according to CEO Jonathan Clancy.
In April, a major Qenos plant at Altona was connected, via almost two miles of PE pipe, to a water treatment facility, cutting main water usage by 520 million gallons a year. Other water-saving initiatives will allow that plant to reduce overall water usage by about 85 percent, Clancy said.
Han Michel, a founding member of the Society of Plastics Engineers Australia-New Zealand, said the industry is slowly starting to recognize “modern outlooks” on producing more innovative, environmentally friendly products — and the environmental obstacles will continue to increase.
“More environment-related regulation in Australia will inevitably be introduced. Europe's RoHS, or Restrictions on Hazardous Substances, and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directives will most likely be implemented in Australia in the future,” he said.
RoHS and WEEE directives became European law in February 2003, setting collection, recycling and recovery targets for all types of electrical goods.
Kevin Thomson, former SPE ANZ president and director of Melbourne-based Eco Products Agency, said moves to ban single-use high density PE grocery bags in three Australian states — South Australia, the Northern Territory and the island of Tasmania — are positive, but a challenge. Eco helps businesses reduce the environmental impacts arising from the use of plastics.
In Australia, HDPE carryout bags, less than 35 microns thick, are widely used in the retail sector. Consumers get them free at most supermarket checkouts to carry groceries home.
Last September, the Tasmanian Greens political party introduced a motion in the state Parliament to ban non-biodegradable HDPE bags and it was supported by both of Tasmania's other parties, the Labor Party and the National Liberal Party. Tasmania's then-Environment Minister David O'Byrne made a commitment to take the proposal to Cabinet, a council of senior ministers responsible to the parliament.
But earlier this year, Tasmanian Greens environment spokeswoman Cassy O'Connor said new Environment Minister Brian Wightman needed to outline a time line for the ban's implementation because nothing has been done.
Tasmania's seaside tourist town of Coles Bay led the nation by banning distribution of free HDPE shopping bags in April 2003.
Last February, Northern Territory Parliament passed a new law to ban HDPE bags, and a four-month plastic bag phaseout period began in May. From Sept. 1, territory retailers can no longer supply lightweight HDPE bags, including degradable bags. The legislation gives residents a 10-cent rebate for recycling eligible plastic and other beverage containers.
In May 2009, South Australia became the first state to ban HDPE bags. It passed a law prohibiting retailers from selling or giving away carry bags less than 35 microns thick, though “barrier” bags, used for holding fruit and vegetables, meat or other perishables, are still permitted.
In 2002, the Environment Protection and Heritage Council, made up of Australia's federal, state and territory environment ministers, launched a discussion about a possible nationwide ban, though no decision has been made yet.
But Thomson said bans encourage imports. “Bags used to be sourced from Australia but, with the restrictions in place, companies have had to go offshore” to find sufficient quantities of biodegradable bags.
He said Australia is slower than the rest of the world in manufacturing bioplastic products, and there are no strong incentives for firms or consumers to recycle plastic. “Consumers and retailers are not putting enough pressure on companies to use recycled goods,” Thomson said. “So companies just keep doing what they've always done. We are good at collecting plastic products, but not so good at reprocessing them. Instead, we send plastic offshore to places like China.”
One Australian company that has received global recognition for bioplastic products is Melbourne-based Plantic Technologies Ltd., which was launched in 2001 to acquire, develop and commercialize intellectual property developed by the Cooperative Research Center for International Food Manufacture and Packaging Science, a government-funded research group.
CRC researchers discovered corn-starch-based formulations can be used to manufacture a flat-sheet bioplastic, which is thermoformed into products like biodegradable food trays. Unlike trays made from petrochemical-derived resins, which can take hundreds of years to degrade, Plantic's trays decompose in months and disintegrate in minutes if fully immersed in water.
In 2005 Plantic began supplying its trays to Croydon, England-based Nestlé UK Ltd., for two major confectionery lines. That same year Plantic entered into development agreements with Melbourne-based packaging firm Visy Industries Pty. Ltd. and a technology partner in the U.S. to develop barrier resin for rigid injection stretch blow molded containers and bottles that could be made with a layer of bioplastic.
Late last year, British retailer Marks & Spencer plc began selling its entire Swiss chocolate range in Plantic's trays.
In another example of innovation, Futuris Automotive Group Ltd. of Melbourne is producing auto carpet from post-consumer PET bottles. About 100 recycled bottles are needed to create enough carpet for one vehicle.