Blog Plastic Pollution

Regulating plastic packaging: what does it mean?

by Shane Cucow, Plastics Campaign Manager June 14, 2023

Businesses failed to act on the ocean plastics crisis, so Australia’s environment ministers made the historic decision on 9 June 2023 to regulate plastic packaging use as early as next year. 


What does this all mean and why is it important for our oceans? 

AMCS Plastics Campaign Manager Shane Cucow explains:

Rising ocean plastic pollution has become a global crisis, killing more than 100,000 marine animals every year. If plastic production continues to rise, it is projected that the amount of plastic entering the ocean each year will triple by 2040. Fundamental to this problem is the rising use of plastic packaging.

For years Australia has only had voluntary targets for reducing plastic pollution, and they haven’t worked. Despite a national target to recover 70% of plastic packaging by 2025, recycling rates have stagnated at just 18% for over four years.

Our governments have made huge investments in recycling infrastructure over the past few years, so you would think our plastics recycling rates would have improved. Yet, the recent collapse of the REDCycle soft plastics collection program has demonstrated the fundamental problem at the heart of this crisis.

We can’t recycle our way out of this crisis – not while businesses continue to ramp up production of hard-to-recycle soft plastics, ignoring targets to reduce plastic and increasing the use of recycled content. 


New rules to make plastic producers responsible for their pollution

At a meeting of Australia’s federal, state and territory environment ministers last week a historic decision was made, following more than a decade of campaigning by ocean lovers. The federal government announced that Australia will set mandatory rules for packaging design and make industry responsible for the packaging they release onto the market..

This means new rules will be established to ensure ALL packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable, and will prevent the use of harmful chemicals and other contaminants in packaging.


Extended Producer Responsibility

As part of this reform, Australia’s governments will look at potential rules that would make plastic producers responsible for the end-of-life management of their plastic waste, taking into consideration best practice from other nations.

Known as “Extended Producer Responsibility”, this can mean a wide range of policies and exactly which Australia will adopt is not yet clear. Container Deposit Schemes are just one example, where beverage companies pay people a refund for recycling bottles and cans. It could also potentially include fees or levies on plastic packaging like those in the UK and Europe, which help to fund recycling and collection infrastructure.


A commitment to harmonise

In addition to new rules on packaging, ministers also agreed to develop a national roadmap for improvements to the harmonisation of kerbside collections, so that the same plastics can be recycled – no matter where you are in Australia.

AMCS has argued for such harmonisation to include kerbside collection of soft plastics, following successful trials of Curby Soft Plastics Program on the NSW Central Coast.


What we want to see included in the new packaging regulations

We are pleased to see Australia’s governments listening to the calls of scientists and ocean lovers, and committing to regulate the use of plastic packaging in Australia within the next 12 months. Together with our supporters, AMCS has been campaigning for this for over a decade, because the evidence is clear – voluntary targets don’t mean anything when companies are not held accountable for their actions.

For too long, companies have been able to produce endless tides of plastics without being held responsible for the ocean pollution crisis they have created.

As the Australian Government considers its packaging reform agenda, we call on them to:

  • Set enforceable targets for plastic packaging recovery AND reduction. We must hold businesses accountable for ensuring 100% of their plastic packaging is recovered for reuse, recycling or composting, but we can’t stop there. We must recognise that plastic production has far exceeded the amount we can ever safely manage, and cap the production and use of virgin fossil fuel plastics.

  • Require all plastics to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable. There is no excuse for companies to be creating plastic products and packaging that have no safe management, destined only to be buried, burned or lost in the ocean, killing our threatened and endangered marine wildlife.

  • Make polluters pay for the cost of dealing with the ocean plastics crisis. Australia should introduce a levy on plastic packaging, with higher fees for plastics that are harder to safely manage. Levies encourage producers to choose better alternatives to plastic, while also paying the costs of recycling, composting and environmental restoration which taxpayers are currently footing the bill for.

The next 12 months will be critical. We must ensure the voices of scientists, traditional owners and ocean lovers are heard as these reforms are developed. This is our best chance to turn off the tap, and stop plastic packaging from polluting our coasts and oceans.