While all States and Territories across Australia except for New South Wales have now banned single-use lightweight plastic bags, moves towards the phase out of other single-use plastics are still at the public consultation stages.
The Queensland Government is the latest to seek public submissions on a proposed ban on the supply of plastic straws, stirrers, plates, cutlery, coffee and other cups, and heavyweight plastic bags. It joins the South Australian, Western Australian and the Australian Capital Territory governments, who also propose to phase out certain single-use plastics. In general, these target single-use plastics are consistent with the first phase materials identified for regulation under the European Union’s Single-Use Plastic Directive.
At the Federal level, proposed legislation to establish a mandatory product stewardship scheme for manufacturers, importers and distributors of consumer packaging and certain single-use plastics and implement certain single-use plastic bans over the next few years has been introduced into the Australian Parliament by the Greens. However, it is unlikely that this will move ahead until 2021 at the earliest.
It is anticipated that there may be pressure to harmonize single-use plastic laws with both the EU and the upcoming SUP restrictions in China. As to what variances from these standards are ultimately adopted in Australia is a subject for the current consultations.
The plan, at present, would be to regulate certain plastic packaging along with specified plastic products as a single group and not through distinct legal schemes. There is currently no clear plan as to what secondary uses would be permitted / required of those volumes of plastics to be managed under the coming product stewardship schemes.
Moves at the local level through the establishment of plastic free precincts are producing some impressive results.
Plastic bag bans
In respect of single-use plastics there is no current in-force national legislation, however all of the State and Territory Governments, with the exception of New South Wales, has implemented legislation banning the use of single-use lightweight plastic bags.
Other single-use plastics
Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory all have current policies or consultations underway on proposals to phase out certain single-use plastics. Federally, the Greens have put forward a proposal on the phase out of single-use plastics and plastic packaging but the Australian Government has no specific policy or plans in this regard.
The Queensland Government’s Plastic Pollution Reduction Plan proposes to ban plastic straws, stirrers, plates and cutlery from 1 July 2020. These items will be permitted only where they are an integral part of packaging, such as a plastic straw attached to a juice box, or where required for the temporary or permanent healthcare and disability needs. The legislation will create offences but will not apply to individual use of single-use plastics. Instead, the prohibitions will apply to the manufacture, importation or wholesale distribution of banned items, and retail sales. The Queensland Government is also looking at extending the ban to coffee cups, other plastic cups and heavyweight plastic bags in the future.
Submissions on the proposals are open until 15 April 2020.
South Australia (SA)
The SA Government released its Single-use and Other Plastic Products (Waste Avoidance) Bill 2019 (SA) late last year. If enacted, the Bill will prohibit from sale and supply plastic drinking straws and beverage stirrers, plastic cutlery, expanded polystyrene cups, bowls, containers and plates, together with all products made of oxo-degradable plastic. Public submissions on the Bill closed on February 2020. The Bill followed the SA Government’s Turning the Tide on Single-Use Plastic Products Discussion paper.
The SA Government is also establishing a taskforce of select business, industry, local government and interest group stakeholders to ensure associated impacts are properly considered and inform the development of legislation.
Western Australia (WA)
In WA, the Environmental Protection Amendment (Banning Plastic Bags and Other Things) Bill 2018 (No. 12-1B) (WA) proposes to restrict the supply of plastic bags, balloons, plastic drinking straws and polyethylene and polystyrene packaging, and prohibit the supply of products containing plastic microbeads. This is a Private Member’s Bill, meaning that it was not introduced by the WA Government, and it has not progressed beyond the Second Reading stage.
In the meantime, the WA Government has released a consultation paper, “Let’s not draw the short straw: reduce single-use plastics“, and consulted widely on options to reduce single-use plastics including balloons, cotton buds with plastic shafts plastic cutlery, plates and stirrers, fishing gear, takeaway coffee cups / lids and wet / baby wipes. The WA Government is seeking public opinion on a range of options from voluntary reduction strategies and community education and behaviour change strategies to regulatory alternatives such as a State-wide ban on the sale or supply of single-use plastics, levies and extended producer responsibility schemes, and labelling requirements. The Government is prepared to ban single-use plastics if the community supports the moves.
Consultations concluded in mid-2019, and the WA Government has not yet reported back on the submissions or next steps.
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT)
The ACT Government has released Phasing out single-use plastics Next Steps Policy and the Plastic Reduction Bill 2020 (ACT) to phase out three key plastic items: single-use plastic cutlery; single-use plastic stirrers, and single-use expanded polystyrene takeaway food and beverage containers. The initial ban is expected to be implemented this year (2020). The ACT Government also intends to phase out plastic straws (except for those who need them), single-use plastic fruit and vegetable ‘barrier bags’ and oxo-degradable plastic products 12 months after the initial ban, with consideration being given to phasing out plastic-lined single-use coffee cups and lids, plastic dinnerware, other single-use plastic products and cotton ear buds in the longer term.
If the ACT goes ahead with these plans it will become the only jurisdiction in Australia to ban fruit and vegetable barrier bags, giving supermarkets and grocers a 12 month lead-time to come up with alternatives.
At the Federal level, the Greens introduced the Product Stewardship Amendment (Packaging and Plastics) Bill 2019 (Cth) proposes to reduce the use of single-use plastics and plastics in packaging in Australia by establishing a mandatory product stewardship scheme for manufacturers, importers and distributors of consumer packaging and certain single-use plastics by introducing targets, prohibitions, design and labelling requirements, and financial contributions in relation to packaging and products identified under the scheme.
The scheme includes the prohibition of certain non-compostable, non-recyclable single-use plastics and packaging within specified timeframes, imposition of labelling requirements, and possible financial contributions in conjunction with penalties for non-compliance. If enacted, the measures set out above would only apply to entities incorporated in Australia.
In particular, the Bill also proposes to ban:
– lightweight plastic carrier bags and products consisting of microbeads by January 2021; and
– by January 2023:
- single-use plastics in cotton buds, balloon sticks and connected rings;
- non-compostable single-use plastics in straws, stirrers, cutlery, plates, bowls, dishes and kitchen utensils; and
- expanded polystyrene and oxo-degradable plastic in single-use food or beverage containers.
Penalties for non-compliance are proposed, ranging from AUD$4,200 to AUD$42,000 for each contravention.
There will likely be ongoing debate within Australia, as is occurring elsewhere, on the relative merits of the various types of bioplastic and plastics alternatives for both SUPs and plastic packaging. In addition, there are concerns about how the regime for exemptions from the scheme will operate to allow plastic products required for medical or food safety purposes to continue to be manufactured and used.
On 12 September 2019, the Senate referred the Bill to the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by the last sitting day of March 2020, which has been extended to 2021 due to COVID-19.
Accordingly, it is unlikely that there will be any major developments on single-use plastic bans at the federal level before next year at the earliest.
Plastic free precincts
To complement these proposed bans, plastic free precincts are being trialled in a number of locations across Australia (Byron, Perth, Adelaide, Cairns and Townsville, plus two trial projects in Victoria (Mt Martha and Elsternwick)) as part of an alliance between Boomerang Alliance and the Australian Packaging Covenant (APCO) to pilot the phase-out of single-use plastic products and items. These precincts will be voluntary and business/retailer led to trial phase outs of a range of single-use plastic items and help inform potentially wider phase-outs as well as to identify opportunities, challenges and barriers associated with transitioning away from single-use plastic products to reusable, recyclable or compostable alternatives.
Notably, the Plastic Free Noosa project has over 200 member businesses in this Queensland tourist destination and its first 18 months has eliminated or replaced over 3 million single use plastic items including over 1 million straws, 280,000 coffee cups, over 750,000 containers and cups, and 260,000 pieces of plastic cutlery. Overall, as at the end of March 2020, over 5 million single use plastics have been eliminated or replaced during the program. This includes over 1.5 million straws, 1 million coffee cups and lids and 1.5 million cold cups and containers. More recently in March 2020, a local council in Tasmania’s capital city, Hobart, voted for a ban on non-compostable food packaging from next year, becoming the first city in Australia to do so. The ban is reported to include single-use plastic tubs and lids, cups and cup lids, utensils, including cutlery, stirrers and straws, sachets and packets and apply to any business that provides or sells takeaway food. However, the ban only extends as far as this municipality, which is one of four in the greater Hobart region leading to concerns that traders subject to the ban will be disadvantaged due to the higher costs of compostable replacements as compared those in neighbouring municipalities. The ban will be introduced using local by-laws and will be enforced by local council officers, although the council has indicated that local businesses will have up to a year after the enactment of the by-law to comply with new packaging requirements.