A Senate inquiry has recommended all single-use plastics be banned by by 2023 – we’re talking takeaway containers, chip packets, and coffee cups with plastic linings.
Here’s what the experts have to say about the issue.
Dr Paul Harvey is from the Department of Environmental Sciences in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Macquarie University
The Australian Senate inquiry calling for single-use plastics to be banned by 2023 is welcome news. Australia’s dependency on single-use plastics has sky-rocketed over the last two decades and, as a result, we see that many of Australia’s valuable natural assets, for example the Great Barrier Reef, are heavily polluted by plastic debris.
The overburden of recycling products in Australia following the cessation of offshore recycling processing demonstrates that we are in urgent need of a shift in the way we handle our waste in Australia.
As with all pollution, prevention of pollution always starts at the source. By limiting the input of single-use plastic into the supply chain, we will see a reduction of single-use plastics in the waste stream.
While there are some instances where single-use plastics are a legitimate requirement – medical situations are an example of this – the vast majority of Australians can live without single-use plastics.
If we are to break Australia’s addiction to single-use plastics, we must provide environmentally-friendly and sustainable alternatives to avoid creating yet another problem in the future.
Professor Stephen D. A. Smith is Director of the National Marine Science Centre at Southern Cross University
This is a significant move in the right direction and is consistent with commitments made by an increasing number of countries worldwide. For example, Costa Rica will ban single-use plastics by 2021, with India following in 2022.
In support of this global movement, SCU’s National Marine Science Centre has announced that we will cease purchase of single-use plastics from 1 July, 2018.
Australia has the opportunity to be a regional leader in the eradication of plastic waste and I strongly support the inquiry’s recommendations.
Dr Robert Crocker is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Art, Architecture and Design at the University of South Australia and a CRC researcher for Low Carbon Living
This serious environmental issue has been brewing for a long time. Apart from banning the more obvious nuisance products, or forcing their substitution with ‘compostables’, there are three additional areas to consider:
We presently lack industrial experience and expertise in the kinds of high-tech recycling currently undertaken in Europe and China. We need to invest in developing or redeveloping these skills in Australia so that we can responsibly manage our own wastes and reuse our resources more profitably. This will mean funding research and education in ‘resource management’ and not just pretending it is all about just ‘recycling’ a few cans.
We need to stop blaming consumers and do more to encourage them – through legislation and well-designed programs – to separate wastes so that we can more fully capture the products we can actually recycle. This may require extending container deposit schemes and funding public smart bins with some national incentivisation scheme, so that consumers are rewarded for returning bottles and cans.
Most single-use plastics are now produced in billions. We need to develop legislation that can weed out these problem plastics from entering the market before they take hold and become a danger to the environment. The market develops too quickly now to continue with the present system of ‘wait until there is a disaster’ (‘post-caution’). The takeaway coffee cup ‘set’, for example, was invented in 1987 and there are now over 500 billion produced every year.
Simon Lockrey is a Research Fellow from the School of Design at RMIT University
Great in theory. Ideally we will have no single-use packaging.
However, without systemic change to supply chains, consumption behaviour and attitudes, this may also drive up waste through rebound effects. For instance, in food systems, packaging can save food waste in the supply chain, from farm to plate.
Without acknowledging other changes to that system when taking away single-use packaging, we may move the waste burden, sometimes to more impactful levels e.g. packaging can be low-impact compared to food waste impacts.
Therefore it would be good with this Senate initiative to see the complimentary strategies for industries using single use packaging to make sure we are a waste reduction winner all-round.
Associate Professor Leonie Barner is from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Institute for Future Environments
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 as soon as possible.
For example, Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene, EPS) cannot be disposed of via the recycle bin (at least in Queensland) and therefore should not be used as single-use food containers.
There are already alternatives available which are more environmentally friendly and can be used instead.
Cafes and restaurants should be discouraged from using use any single-use cutlery and crockery – even if they are made out of more sustainable material such as paper, cardboard or wood. Any single-use cutlery and crockery has an adverse effect on the environment.
Professor Sankar Bhattacharya is from the Department of Chemical Engineering from Monash University
Reduce, reuse, recycle. Like brushing your teeth after a meal, recycling is just the right thing to do.
Now that China has stopped taking our trash, we’re scrambling to figure out how to keep all those good intentions out of the landfill.
[But] there’s a silver lining. To [me], it’s an opportunity for Monash to take a leading role in solving the problem at home.
[We’ve] has built a prototype processing plant on campus that turns plastic, as well as waste tyres, into diesel fuel.
The majority of the plastics we use in our daily life – different grades of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and even polyvinyl chloride, to some extent – can be processed into liquid fuel.
That’s what China was doing with the plastic recyclables it bought from us. They’re now realising that their domestic production of waste products is so large that they cannot process any more by bringing in waste plastics from other countries.
Time is of the essence; the Chinese embargo means that everything we sold to them has to find another home – and right now, that’s the landfill. Once plastic is there, it’s there to stay.
Research suggests grocery bags could take anywhere from 500 to 1000 years to degrade – not exactly a shining legacy to leave for future generations.
The numbers are staggering. Australians produce more than 43 million tonnes of solid waste a year. Every day we use more than 10 million plastic bags. In 2015-16, Victoria collected nearly 600,000 tonnes of recyclables, of which 9 per cent was plastic containers.
Thavamani Palanisami is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Center for Environmental Remediation (GCER), University of Newcastle
Due to the lack of an economical way to reuse some plastic materials, the ‘single-use plastic’ term took birth. Ban of all single-use plastic is surely a crucial measure needs to be taken for our planet’s well-being.
However, I would like to add one thing, which is the next step.
All the present tags used for plastic such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘bio-based’, ‘100% degradable’ etc. only confuse the public, making them assume that they are doing the right thing by using these bags. The lack of awareness about plastic and its behaviour in the environment is another issue which needs to be taken care sincerely.
We at the University of Newcastle are working on a risk assessment of plastic and would be happy to help when comes to creating public awareness or answering technical and scientific questions.
Adding to this, along with a ban on single-use plastic, it will also be worthwhile to make policies regarding the biodegradable plastic, as we are still unsure about their behaviour and fate in the natural environment.
Thus, to summarize:
- Tags such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘bio-based’, ‘100% degradable’ need to be regulated.
- We need to create public awareness about types of plastic and their individual behaviour.
- We need to set standard testing methods to verify the biodegradability of the plastic items tagged as ‘biodegradable’.