Canberra, Australia — An Australian Senate report has recommended phasing out all single-use plastics by 2023.
The Senate's Environment and Communications References Committee's (ECRC) new report, "Never waste a crisis: the waste and recycling industry in Australia," contains 18 recommendations, including ending use of "petroleum-based single-use plastics" within five years.
ECRC held public hearings in three states and received 63 submissions before compiling its 164-page report.
Other recommendations include the Australian Government committing to implementing ECRC's recommendations from its 2016 inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia and implementing a national container deposit to keep plastic and other beverage containers out of the waste stream.
The report cited Australian Bureau of Statistics data that found, during fiscal year 2016-17, Australia exported 81,496 metric tons of waste plastic to Hong Kong (45 percent); 43,207 metric tons to China (24 percent) and the rest was fairly evenly split between Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.
ECRC said China's waste import policies have contributed to Australia's recycling industry now being "in crisis."
Mike Richie, director, MRA Consulting Group (the trading name of Mike Ritchie & Associates Pty. Ltd.), based in the Sydney suburb of Drummoyne, told ECRC the price of mixed plastic has dropped from A$250–A$350 (US$185-259 million) a metric ton, and A$400–A$450 (US$296-333 million) for sorted PET and high density polyethylene, to about A$50 (US$37) a metric ton.
The South Australian Government said exporters need to charge fees to cover handling and shipping costs, and the price fall means "some plastics recyclers struggle to compete with landfill disposal operators" because that's now cheaper.
ECRC said while exporters can seek to reduce contaminant levels to meet Chinese import standards, that requires plastics to be sorted, separated and washed before export. The committee heard evidence more plastic is being stockpiled or sent to landfill since China imposed restrictions.
ECRC received many submissions arguing Australian recycling must transition from being export-focused to an industry that supports waste being reprocessed and reused domestically.
"The crisis has arisen because Australia has grown complacent. In the early years of curbside recycling, the need for high-quality material, and low levels of contamination, was critical to ensuring the nascent industry became established," the report said.
ECRC recommended the single-use plastics ban because "the enormity of problems created by plastics requires a holistic approach. However, more direct measures are needed to tackle this problem immediately and respond to community concern about plastic in the environment."
The grassroots environmental network Plasticwise argued for the ban, saying because there is no "effective, safe way to dispose of it, we urge the Australian Government to reduce production and consumption of single-use plastics by implementing a national phase out to a complete ban of all single-use plastic bags and other disposable plastic items, which can be replaced with reusable or compostable alternatives."
Simon Lockrey, a research fellow from RMIT University's School of Design, in Melbourne, said it is "great in theory. However, without systemic change to supply chains, consumption behavior and attitudes, this may drive up waste through rebound effects. For instance, in food systems, packaging can save food waste" and is low impact compared to food waste impacts. He urged complementary strategies for industries using single-use packaging to ensure Australia is "a waste reduction winner all-round."
Associate Professor Leonie Barner, from Brisbane-based Queensland University of Technology's Institute for Future Environments, said "not all plastics are the same. Some are easy to recycle, others are not. We should ban single-use plastics which cannot be recycled in Australia. There are alternatives available which are more environmentally friendly."