Phasing out cigarette filters, microbeads and most types of disposable plastic foodware and containers would help halve the amount of plastic pollution flowing into Australia’s environment, according to a new report
Commissioned by WWF-Australia and prepared by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the report presents the first comprehensive set of recommendations for addressing the six most problematic types of single-use plastic, including plastic bottles, soft ‘scrunchable’ plastics, disposable foodware, disposable packaging and containers, cigarettes and microplastics.
BCG analysed data from clean-up activities and found these ‘six-to- solve’ make up the majority of litter collected from the environment and pose the greatest threat to Australia’s oceans and waterways.
“We estimate these six types of plastic account for 70% of our single-use plastics consumption in Australia and make up 75,000 tonnes of the 130,000 tonnes of plastic flowing into our environment each year,” said BCG managing director and partner Wendy Mackay.
“This equates to around 600 million plastic bottles, 7.14 billion pieces of soft plastics and a staggering 8 billion cigarette butts leaking to the environment each year, making cigarettes the most littered item in Australia.”
According to WWF-Australia’s No Plastics in Nature policy manager Katinka Day, littered cigarettes get washed into storm water drains and into our waterways, where marine animals can mistake them for food and be killed by the toxic materials.
“Cigarette filters are made from non-biodegradable plastic that can take up to 15 years to break down. Afterwards they become microplastics and leach their toxins into our oceans.”
The report proposes three actions for Australia’s federal, state and territory governments to take to reduce consumption of these six plastics and prevent their leakage into nature:
- Develop a roadmap to phase out cigarette filters, microbeads and most types of disposable plastic foodware, packaging and containers.
- Enact regulation to manage single-use plastics that can’t be phased-out through product standards (e.g. designing for recyclability) and measures to improve collection (e.g. container deposit schemes).
- Incentivise development and adoption of sustainable alternatives and systems to assist the transition away from single-use plastics.
The report found these actions have the potential to reduce Australia’s consumption of the ‘six-to-solve’ plastics by a quarter, more than double the rate of recovery for recycling and more than halve the leakage of plastic into the environment.
“We have the opportunity to halve the amount of plastic pollution flowing into nature right now, but we need our governments to take the lead. Industries and individuals cannot solve the planet’s plastic problem alone,” Day said.
The report also reveals that moving away from problematic plastics can be done and highlighted innovative examples of businesses and other countries leading the way.
They cited the Loop circular shopping system where groceries are sold in reusable and refillable containers, a startup called Evoware that uses seaweed as an alternative to plastic packaging, and Simply Cups which has teamed up with 7-Eleven Australia to collect plastic coffee cups and process them into new recycled products.
EU polluter pays
Other countries are also finding solutions to extinguish problematic plastic litter, such as cigarette filters. The EU has introduced a ‘polluter pays’ model that requires cigarette producers to cover the costs of clean up, while California has proposed a ban on single-use plastic filters.
“These success stories show we have the solutions to beat plastic pollution. Australian businesses are trying to tackle the problem, but the fragmented regulatory landscape makes it difficult and expensive and also stifles innovation,” Day added.
“If our governments adopt the recommendations of this report they will save costs for businesses, encourage innovation and stop 44,000 tonnes of plastic from pouring into our environment each year.”