Plastic waste reduction strategies on the rise as government and industry step up action
News • Central Innovation • 12 April 2019
Plastic waste is on the government and industry’s radar like never before. International awareness of the fact that it has reached staggering proportions is generating unprecedented action, with innovative strategies being put in place to not only ensure its reduction, but even achieve what once would have been thought impossible – its complete elimination.
Both Australia and New Zealand have set the ambitious goal of achieving 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or earlier, and both are working closely with industry to ensure support for high-visibility initiatives like the banning of single-use plastic shopping bags. Plastic bag bans have also been undertaken in some US cities (notably Boston and Jersey City), though nothing has been done there on a statewide level, and the EU has also recognised the issue – citing plastic bags as a key waste reduction focus in its European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy.
A similarly high profile goal is the removal of microbeads – the tiny plastic particles hidden in everyday cosmetic items such as face wash and body scrub. It’s estimated that a single shower can wash away as many as 100,000, which then reach the ocean where they are ingested by sea creatures, thereby finding their way into our food chain.
Australia’s Department of Environment and Energy is coordinating a voluntary phase-out of microbeads in rinse-off products, after its assessment of personal care and cosmetic products found that 94 per cent of 4400 products inspected were already microbead free. Elsewhere, the moves have been more stringent – New Zealand banned their import, manufacture and sale in rinse-off cosmetics last June, and both the UK and Canada have enacted similar bans. But while the US has enacted federal legislation to ban manufacture of rinse-off cosmetics containing microbeads, only a few US states have since moved to put legislation in place to restrict non-biodegradable microbeads at a local level.
While these activities highlight government and industry’s recognition of the problem, they also showcase the widespread variation in the way such issues are tackled by different nations – underscoring the difficulties inherent in establishing a consistent and internationally supported framework for waste reduction.
Nevertheless, the widespread recognition of the need for action is generating innovative initiatives from industry – particularly the manufacturing sector, which is recognising it has a key role to play. Samsung, the world’s largest smartphone producer (selling around 291 million last year), has announced plans to gradually phase out single-use plastics in its packaging. Starting this year, its phones, tablets and wearable devices are to be packaged in paper, pulp moulds and bio-based or recycled plastics, and it will also stop placing a protective plastic film over such devices.
The relatively short life and inevitable obsolescence of these electronic devices means that e-waste is growing at an alarming rate. This is spurring the creation of product stewardship initiatives like Australia’s MobileMuster, the mobile phone industry’s free recycling program. Partnering with not for profit organisation Take 3 for the Sea, MobileMuster set the target of collecting and recycling 30,000 mobiles last summer – at the same time helping Take 3 for the Sea remove almost 100,000 pieces of plastics from the ocean.
Other vehicle manufacturers are enacting similar initiatives. Ford now has 300 vehicle parts derived from soybeans, cotton, wood and other renewable sources, and Nissan is utilising closed-loop recycling for plastic, aluminium and steel – a process by which waste generated during vehicle production and scrap from parts is recycled for use in similar products. In Japan, Nissan is collecting plastic from bumper scraps and recycling it via a bumper reprocessing line in its Oppama plant, utilising the new bumpers in vehicles like its Nissan Leaf, the world’s best-selling electric car.
Of course it’s not possible for industry to solve the problems of plastic waste reduction on its own – governments need to enact legislation and undertake initiatives to incentivize action.
Looking closer to home – last October, the New Zealand government became a signatory to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, a UN-led initiative focusing on the root causes of plastic waste and pollution. It is now working with 15 local and multinational companies to create the New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration.
And back in 1999, the Australian Packaging Covenant was set up between federal, state and territory governments and the packaging industry to reduce environmental impact of consumer packaging. In 2017 it delivered a five year strategic plan endorsed by the National Environment Protection Council, focusing on sustainable packaging design and diverting from landfill.
While such actions are certainly positive steps, the latest available figures show Australia’s national plastics recycling rate as 11.8 per cent, with 293,000 tonnes of plastic recycled in 2016/17, a fall of 10 per cent from the previous financial year. So there is still work to do.
We can all play a role in reducing plastic waste at a personal and professional level. How we reduce, re-use and recycle plastic packaging both at home and in the workplace has a positive impact on our environment.
At Central Innovation, we are working closely with our partners to reduce our own waste – identifying where we can eliminate it from packaging materials and marketing collateral. Encouraging our clients to download our software rather than have it supplied via physical media is another way we have been able to reduce our waste footprint. Through such initiatives, businesses and industries such as ours can develop and implement their own corporate social responsibility policy, then partner with NGOs and other organisations that are working to mitigate these issues. By keeping waste reduction on our radar, we’re all able to make a positive contribution to a cleaner, safer future.