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Plastics and Circular Economy conference attendees cast their votes for Australia’s future

Conference attendees vote to stay the course and not shirk from ambitious circularity targets for plastics. There is broad support for more policy and regulation across the value chain that will enable and accelerate reaching these targets by 2030.


Introduction

The recent Plastics and the Circular Economy Conference organised by the Society of Plastics Engineers: Australia – New Zealand Section (SPE-ANZ) held in Melbourne on 10 & 11th October attracted over 140 industry professionals to exchange ideas on the region’s progress, challenges and solutions to achieve a plastics circular economy.


In addition to hearing from a wide range of industry experts and engaging in Q&A attendees were given the opportunity to express their thoughts on the future direction of policy and targets to accelerate plastics circularity. This was done through a series of interactive panels where specific questions were asked, and attendees could vote for various options by placing red dots and/or providing feedback through post-it notes. On average about a third of the attendees participated in this activity.


This activity was inspired by significant concerns raised at last year’s conference as featured in the 2022 Conference Communique and also covered in this year’s program. It was also timely given the major government work underway into global treaties, and targets, stewardship schemes and circular frameworks for Australia and the region.

Conference curator Helen Millicer provides instructions on how to interact with the panels
Recovery and recycled content targets

Q1. The first question of attendees was what should be the target for plastic packaging collection recovery for the most dominant packaging polymers. There was broad support to carry the 70% recovery target from the 2025 National Packaging Targets (2025 NPTs) to 2030. Given the current progress at 10-39% (PET at 39%; LDPE at 10%) it appears that maintaining the 2025 target for 2030 is appropriate.

Q2. The second question was what should be the 2030 post-consumer recycled content target in plastic packaging. Interestingly here, attendees were more ambitious than the 2025 NPTs, which have a 20% average recycled content target for plastics. Most participating attendees voted for a recycled content target of more than 50%, particularly for PET, HDPE and PP. For LDPE it was recognised that recycling processes to produce high quality recyclates are less mature with votes more evenly spread between 25% and 55%.

Additional comments on recycled content stated (please note, these are statements/views from individual attendees and do not necessarily represent the views of SPE-ANZ):

  • Australia should set Minimum Recycled Content Targets for all polymers (5%). Recycled content depends on many factors, including application and supply

  • Targets should be set differently for non-food and for food use. Not yet ready for mandatory targets for food use as safety must first be assured

  • Recycled content should include pre-consumer and post-consumer recyclate

Circularity targets beyond packaging

Q3. Current policies and strategies for circularity are heavily focused on packaging in which 32% of all plastics in Australia are used (according to the latest national report presented by Blue Environment). The majority of attendees agreed that recycling and recycled content targets should also be introduced for other sectors that represent more than two-thirds of plastic consumption.

Q4a. As to the sectors for which targets should be set, it is hard to pinpoint to a specific application as votes were spread reasonably evenly. Transport/automotive received lower support, likely related to this being a smaller manufacturing sector in Australia and with stringent performance and safety requirements.



Q4b. Looking at it from a polymer perspective, attendees chose to focus on high volume commodity polymers in first instance. Engineering polymers like Nylon and ABS appear less of a priority currently. The low vote for PVC is likely related to its predominant use in durable applications like plastic pipes that typically last between 25 and 100+ years. 52% of all PVC ever used in Australia is still performing its original task according to the conference presentation by Matthew Hoyne from Vinyl Council of Australia.

Levers to achieve circularity targets

Q5. The top 3 measures to accelerate plastics circularity were:

  1. Increasing the landfill levy for recyclable plastics

  2. Mandatory recycled content in priority products

  3. Mandate extended producer responsibility

Other measures such as green procurement, best practice design for circularity and funding for collection and reprocessing also gained good levels of support.


Q6. To the question of what should be the differential levy for recyclables dropped off at a recycler compared to recyclable plastics going to landfill, the majority of attendees voted for a fee difference in excess of $200/t. (Two people added to the table the price of $1000/t; had options higher than $200 been included on the panel it is possible more people would have nominated higher amounts.) It was viewed that such a levy differential would discourage recyclable plastics going to landfill and may address the current weak recycling business model that is strongly exposed to commodity cycles and often results in higher prices for recyclates compared to virgin plastic that goes to landfill.

Conclusion

The survey response captured through the interactive panels at the SPE-ANZ Plastics and the Circular Economy Conference 2023 sends a clear message to companies and governments that plastic industry professionals and stakeholders want to stay the course for ambitious circularity targets.

Furthermore, there is broad support for policy and regulation across the value chain that will enable and accelerate reaching these targets by 2030.

These results should be read in conjunction with the Conference Communique from 2022 and the short summary of Conference 2023.



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