Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on plastic recycling

20 March 2023



 I thank the member for Fremantle for this important motion. Soft plastic recycling is a significant issue in Australia, as traditional recycling methods do not work on these materials and they can take hundreds of years to break down in landfill, causing serious environmental harm. Australia currently consumes more single-use plastic waste per person than any other country in the world after only Singapore. That is something that I think Australians just don't realise. Despite awareness, we are not good worldwide citizens on plastics.

Consumption of plastic is rising, and we recover less than 15 per cent of the plastic used in our country. Plastic pollution is the single biggest threat to marine biodiversity. That said, until the collapse of REDcycle, Woolworths had seen an increase in soft plastic returns, growing at some 70 per cent per year. So, there was a willingness but really not an awareness of how badly we were doing. Individuals were starting to do their bit, but only 16 per cent of plastic packaging was recycled or composted in Australia between 2019 and 2020. The national packaging target is for 70 per cent of plastic packaging to be recycled or composted by 2025, but we are way off that target, and it shows that a voluntary system is simply not working.

Ninety-nine per cent of plastic is made by using fossil fuels, like fracked gas and oil, and it is dangerous to people and the environment throughout its entire life cycle. REDcycle was a well-known soft plastic recycling initiative in Australia but then declared bankruptcy, catching all unaware and leaving a huge gap in this circular system. A new soft plastics task force has been established to develop a new approach to soft plastic recycling in Australia with some urgency. I recently met with representatives from Woolworths and was heartened in relation to their commitment to solving this issue and stepping into the gap that has been left by REDcycle. The task force is a collaboration of leading brands, government bodies and industry groups aiming to create a more sustainable future for soft plastics in Australia. It's quite frightening to think about the extent to which all these players were simply in the dark as to how badly REDcycle was operating.

The soft plastics task force will focus on education, innovation and collaboration to address the challenges of soft plastic recycling. It aims to develop new recycling technologies and solutions, such as using soft plastics in road infrastructure and other construction projects. The aim is to introduce in-store collection pilot programs and kerbside collection programs. But we need to recognise that government needs to have a priority when it comes to its procurement—that in fact we are prioritising the use of recycled plastics. We know the task force is severely constrained, but it shows lack of access to soft plastic recycling, which can process the mixed polymer soft plastics that they aim to collect.

Currently it's impossible to recycle the volume of household soft plastics collected in the proposed programs by using the current infrastructure. However, over the next year the task force plans to align their collection program with projected opening of new recycling operators and expansion of existing processors. The task force also aims to raise awareness about the importance of soft plastic recycling and the devastating impacts of single-use plastics on our environment. There are some solutions but they require political will. Soft plastic recycling reduces waste, conserves natural resources and prevents pollution. Consumers want to know that the plastics they put in recycling bins and at collection sites is actually being recycled to ensure this continued investment and expansion of the recycling industry remains paramount. We need to ensure the circular economy works, where waste is designed out, materials are kept in the economy for as long as possible, and where residual waste is reduced and safely managed in a safe and sustainable alternative to the constant reintroduction of virgin plastics we see in Australia. That is why I strongly support that we introduce an import tax when it comes to any manufacturing or selling of any virgin plastics. We need to get away from new plastics constantly coming into the system. As I said, government procurement contracts must mandate a proportion of recycled content; that would be a large lever. We have to create that market for recycled contents. And product stewardship schemes can be imposed to increase the responsibility of businesses for the waste they produce.