Tammy Ven Dange at the National Plastics Summit

National Plastics Summit:

Thoughts from the 2 March 2020 Event

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, we’re doing something a little bit different. Last week I was at the National Plastics Summit at the Parliament House in Canberra, Australia.

This event was sponsored by the Australian Government and the invite said (paraphrased) “this Summit seeks to accelerate solutions to the proliferation of plastic waste, and activate the actions agreed to by states and territories last year in the National Waste Policy Action Plan.”

There were 200 of us invited from various industries.  This included consumer products companies like McDonalds and Officeworks to plastics manufacturers, waste management companies, recyclers and packaging companies.  There were also a number of government officials, not-for-profits and experts from academia there as well.

As far as format goes, the day was largely divided into 5 concurrent sessions around various topics which were advertised as round tables. They were held once in the morning, and again after lunch.

While there, I had the opportunity to randomly interview participants about solutions they were proposing, and what they thought of the event. 

Before we hear what they have to say, let me just clarify the separation of duties between the federal and local governments – which is often referred collectively as the COAG or the Council of Australian Governments.

It is the local governments that are actually responsible for waste management and recycling services for their communities.  The federal government has national authority for legislation, taxation and budget distribution. They also have significant purchasing power for their own needs.

So, let’s hear now what some of the attendees had to say about the National Plastics Summit.



While the views of those I interviewed are obviously just a sample of those attending, I think they made some valid points.  And I have a few thoughts myself.

I think many of us assumed that we would actually be spending the day in working groups.  Instead, there was a pre-selected panel of speakers for each round table, and then we had an opportunity to ask questions or comment on what they had to say if there was enough time.

The format made it really hard to provide any feedback, especially if you had some thoughts off topic. As such, I agree with many of those that I interviewed that we didn’t really spend that much time on solutions.

When there were solutions, there were obviously conflicts with views as you would expect with such diverse group of attendees.  The larger companies said that scale, standardisation and support for large investments were needed. 

But others talked about the need for decentralised waste management solutions in remote and smaller communities that were not currently being serviced.

Others felt that investment would be better served in finding alternatives to plastic all together.

We also talked about changes needed in the industry itself. For one, product and packaging companies have been moving from hard or what the industry calls rigid plastics to soft plastics.  While, there are a lot of good reasons to do this including reducing the amount of plastic used, most of the recycling industry is set up for hard plastics only.

We also lack processing plants in Australia, but it’s hard to invest in those without greater demand and longer-term contracts.

To solve that, some companies believe that there should be a policy for relevant products that requires a minimum 30% recycled content. But others worried about how that would work against imports when the Prime Minister has indicated that he would not use taxes to fix this issue.

So, with such different ideas, it was great to see a number of companies taking their own initiatives to reduce plastic waste.  In addition to the PACT Group announcement, we also heard that:

  • McDonalds is moving from plastic to fibre based cutlery or eating utensils;
  • Nestle is partnering to conduct a soft plastic curbside collection pilot for 100k households; and
  • QANTAS is shifting from plastic to inflight composable cups, cutlery and meal boxes by the end of the year.

My favourite part of the Summit was the fact that they also invited some kids to this event that were already leading plastic waste initiatives. They worked separately on their own recommendations to Government, but I bet they came up with some of the best ideas.

With the Commonwealth banning the export of mixed plastic by July 2021, it’s clear that a lot has to be done by everyone before then. Otherwise, there will be a lot more plastic going into landfill.

Many of us will be eagerly awaiting the results of the COAG meeting scheduled for 13 March to see how local governments react to the outputs of the Plastics Summit.

Hopefully, last week’s event was just the first of many opportunities to work with government and each other on this very important issue. While the views of the attendees were as different as they were, it was clear that everyone understood the problem and were eager to be a part of the solution.

A huge thanks to Minister Sussan Ley and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment for inviting me to the National Plastics Summit, and for also allowing me to conduct these interviews.  Also, thank you to the attendees who shared their thoughts with me for this podcast. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to include everyone.

Credits

Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

How a little bit of plastic can do so much good and bad

Have you ever wondered how plastic products are made? They begin as a petroleum liquid or gas, and are turned into these pellets or microbeads below:

Virgin plastic pellets

I took this picture at one of the manufacturing plants I visited this week. These pieces are about the size of a rice kernel, and the few black ones in this batch will make the whole mix that colour. Because of the size of the beads, they’re easy to melt and then mould into something useful.

Now imagine shipping containers full of these microbeads spilling into the ocean. This is what was found in 2017 on beaches in the UK after that occurred.

Nurdles on a beach
Credit: Deborah Fuchs

The reality is that any plastic product will eventually break back down into these rice size pieces and even smaller over time. Yet, it will be centuries before they can degrade back to petroleum.

This is why there’s so much talk about plastic in the news these days. This is not new knowledge. It’s just that the physical impacts to our environment and wildlife have finally reached such high levels that it’s hard to ignore.

Plastic isn’t a bad product by itself. It’s light, durable, flexible, and lasts forever – the same traits that are also causing harm to Mother Nature. The challenge for product manufacturers is to design their goods for the full cycle of life, not just the making stage.

If everyone thought about the disposal of the product and not just the making and using stages, they would probably make it very differently.

At The Refoundry, we will have a take back system in place where any used product can be sent back to use to be donated for reuse or recycled back into the same product. It will no doubt be expensive do to this with storage and transport costs, but I don’t see how we can consider ourselves an environmental social enterprise and not do this. I can only hope that our customers will value this too.

Visiting the local recycle plant

Took a tour of the local recycling plant. It’s a big operation with a lot of manual labour requirements to sort our waste. It also appears that sorted bails of plastic are starting to accumulate. It’s common industry knowledge that there aren’t enough local buyers of recycled material now that most of the Asian countries are no longer taking our rubbish. The price per ton of bailed plastic (pre-processed) has dropped because of this. This only confirms my view that more manufacturing must be done with Australian recycled plastic to avoid it going to the landfills.