The UN called it the biggest green deal since the 2015 Paris climate agreement — it’s the first-ever plan to create the world’s first global plastic pollution treaty, a legally binding agreement to take on the “full lifecycle of plastic” from production to packaging design and waste.
“This is a historic moment,” says Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme from Nairobi.
But, he says, “as we embark on this journey, let us be clear that the agreement will only truly count if it has clear provisions that are legally binding”.
The Greens welcomed the UN agreement but warned Australia not to take a two-year pause on tackling the issue — comments that come following the release of the second part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark report into the climate crisis.
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“While the Morrison Government talks a big game on tackling plastic pollution and waste, the reality is it has deliberately avoided taking the most basic and important steps to getting the job done,” Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson says.
“The Government has dragged the chain because of its close ties to powerful packaging companies who have consistently lobbied against regulations to move us towards zero waste.”
Retail expert from Queensland University of Technology Gary Mortimer warned rushing in without a plan can spell disaster for our retail sector.
“It’s easy to say, let’s get rid of all plastics — but sometimes it’s a lot more challenging when you really think about the role of plastics in retail in general,” Mortimer says.
For instance, he says, plastic is a necessary barrier for perishables like meat and salad, but it also provides a barrier for oil-based products like cereal and almond meal.
When it comes to the millions of pieces of fashion for sale, Mortimer continues, converting plastic hangers to wood or metal would be a massive upheaval for businesses — particularly small and medium-sized shops.
But retailers are already making their move towards a greener future, he says.
“We’ve seen Aldi this year move to remove plastic straws out of their fruit poppers and replace them with a paper alternative. Supermarkets would sell million of poppers for school lunchboxes and that plastic straw is quite solid with a pointy end to punch through the popper, so the whole design of the paper alternative and the sealant on top needed to change to allow a paper straw to push through,” he explains.
“While I think removing plastics from retail is ultimately a smart move, we must consider what alternatives will take the place of plastic.”
Mortimer says the move away from plastics is an inevitable progression as climate concerns intensify among Australians.
Australia produces some 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste each year and 84% of which is sent to landfill, while about 130,000 tonnes of plastic waste leaks into the environment.
Plus, by 2025, plastic cutlery and straws are among the types of single-use plastics that will be phased out in Australia, while expanded polystyrene food containers will be banned by December this year.
“Ultimately, it’s about creating a positive habit — when the supermarkets in the remaining states (South Australia, ACT and Tasmania were leaders, the others followed) introduced the single-use plastic bag ban and moved to the 15 cent reusable bag, it took time for customers to accept,” he says.
“There was a loud minority of customers that felt that, if they shopped with a retailer, they automatically should be given a free bag — but that was just the result of years of conditioning.”
“Now we just naturally bring reusable bags to the store — it’s become a habit.”