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Outcomes from Plastics and the Circular Economy Conference 2023

Australia and EU are two jurisdictions with potential to achieve full plastics circularity

The recently completed 2023 Plastics and Circular Economy Conference organised by the Society of Plastics Engineers: Australia – New Zealand Section (SPE-ANZ) revealed astonishing findings and results. On Tuesday morning 10 October the packed conference heard global expert John Richardson of ICIS predict that Australia and Europe were the two jurisdictions in the world that had the greatest potential to go circular on plastics - if the right policy settings were put in place.

This is a marked development upon the Conference in November 2022, which surprisingly and boldly released a Communique calling for actions to prevent the loss of another vital industry from Australia.

The 2022 Communique displayed industry’s frustration at lack of vision, leadership and government policy, resulting in ‘spinning wheels’ of wasted effort and billions in investment potential. There was palpable concern that the industry would close, recycling would fail and manufacturing would move offshore exposing Australia to great loss and vulnerabilities.

Conference shifts from frustration to identifying paths forward

One year later and Conference audience debates turned from frustration to concern that more actions are needed and faster to transition industry to a circular low emissions future. There was also far better-informed presentations and debate on required actions, what may work or not for targets, staged rollout and levers to improve supply, market pull and economics for good plastics and recycling.

In opening the 2023 Conference, Helen Millicer, program curator, rated progress on the concerns and required actions listed in the 2022 Communique. She noted governments, businesses and industry groups have commenced or revealed potentially generational improvements and investments in policies, targets, infrastructure, stewardship programs and accountability.

However, the biggest gap still outstanding is on improving the economics for real and effective management of plastics, both packaging and products. Participants were left wondering whether governments and key industry sector leaders recognised the risk and need for economic levers, and whether there would be collaborative long term bold strategy and planning like in Europe with multiple milestones and suite of measures active toward 2030 and 2050.

The 2023 Conference ran for two full days in Melbourne and two half days online. It featured a program rich with international leaders spicing up discussions and comparisons with their successful experiences for smarter actions in Australia and New Zealand.

Fork in the Road for Australian manufacturing and industry

Panel discussions and keynote presentations were unflinching in describing the monumental challenges as mega-plants come online overseas, offering ever more plastic resin and products at rock bottom prices undercutting Australia’s manufacturing capacity and attempting to move to a more circular and low emissions future. Presentations also set out the challenges in decoupling plastics production and societal use from high GHG emissions and virgin oil and gas. Tony Wood from the Grattan Institute noted that Australia is moving to decarbonise the electricity grid, however, more is needs to be done to shift fossil-fuel intensive industry sectors to renewable and circular sources of feedstock and energy.

Policy intervention is required to achieve higher recycling rates

There was strong support for the introduction of better-designed products and packaging for long life, reuse and recyclability. This included phasing out non-recyclable polymers, colours, labels, adhesives, particularly in packaging to improve recovery rates and lower losses and costs.

There was strong support for extended producer responsibility and collaboration in industry sectors ranging from packaging to agriculture. There was applause for the work of the dairy and food and grocery industry sectors with their proposed EPR endeavours and collaborations as forerunner initiatives for Australia.

However, there was considerable concern at the mountain of plastics that are still lost to landfill due to inadequate economic levers, like indiscriminate landfill fees that inhibit businesses offering better sorting, collection and processing of recyclable plastics, that therefore prevent Australia achieving its recovery and recycled content targets. It was clearly noted that leading nations disallow landfilling of recyclable products like plastics through both landfill fees or bans and also stimulate market pull with green procurement, virgin plastic taxes and recycled content mandates.

The other big lever, currently voluntary, and underutilised in Australia is green procurement. Attendees heard the years of toil of companies and sectors to form certifications and labels for eco-design and recycled content products and how they are often ignored or disallowed by authorities with big spending procurement budgets. This contrasted with the Dutch Government that passed a law in 2007 for green procurement to be mandatory with an ever-growing list of products in scope. There was applause for the Victorian Recycled First Policy and Ecologiq program that assists in providing viable long orders for innovation and production and calls for this to be national, normalised and mandatory like in the Netherlands.

Other important notes and developments arising from the Conference were:

  • Global movements such as the Plastics Pollution Treaty will only grow more prominent and are likely to contribute to greater pressure for national strategies for action

  • Brands already struggle to secure recycled feedstock and have little capacity to influence or improve separation and collections for recovery from citizens and businesses

  • Reuse systems for plastics, particularly packaging and pipe are underdeveloped, resourced or utilised

  • Innovations such as EPR schemes in plastics may best start with industry leadership but due to economics and a vast number of liable parties, require regulated mandatory membership to minimise free-riders and financial failure

  • Australia will require both improved mechanical and advanced chemical recycling to achieve circularity

  • Requirements for recycled content and EPR must equally apply to imported products and resin to ensure equity for Australian industries with recycled content sourced locally

  • The role of compostable plastics is being carefully reassessed to avoid any detrimental impact on recycling processes and ensure that applicable compostability standards are met to underpin claims

  • Australian companies are increasingly collaborating in multiple ventures for collection, reprocessing and advanced chemical recycling.

The voice of the participants was captured through several activity boards that allowed participants to vote for new recovery and recycled content targets by polymer, consider targets for applications beyond packaging, and suggest a new landfill levy for recyclable materials. A detailed analysis of this activity will be published on the SPE-ANZ website in the coming weeks.

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