State-by-state plastic ban timelines a ‘headache SMEs could do without’, peak retail body says

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The largest peak body for the retail sector is urging the federal government to help Australian businesses understand and act on complex state-by-state guidelines for phasing out single-use plastics.

Australian Retailers Association (ARA) CEO Paul Zahra says national consistency is urgently needed as 18 separate single-use plastic items are phased out over eight different state and territory jurisdictions.

Zahra says business owners want to do the right thing by reducing or replacing plastic items, calling it a “top priority” for the retail sector — but he warned the complexity of the scheme may undermine its effectiveness.

“Retailers understand the important role they have to play in addressing plastic pollution, but the lack of a national approach is making the phase-out of single-use plastics more complex and more costly than necessary and is undermining the effectiveness of the change,” Zahra said.

“We recognise the devastating impact that plastics have on the natural environment, particularly on the health of marine life, and our sector is committed to being a part of the solution.”

It comes as Australia’s State of the Environment Report 2021 was released today, shedding light on the grim state of the country’s deteriorating natural landscape.

The report, the accumulation of thousands of hours of work over two years by more than 30 experts, says climate change is compounding ongoing and past damage from land clearing, invasive species, pollution and urban expansion.

Several states are already phasing out plastics. Retailers doling out single-use plastic bags in New South Wales now face fines of up to $275,000 after the statewide ban came into force as of June 1.

NSW Environment Minister James Griffin says the move would singlehandedly “remove 2.7 billion items of plastic waste from our environment over the next 20 years”.

In November, plastic straws, stirrers, cutlery, plates and cotton buds, as well as polystyrene plates and cups, will also be banned across NSW.

But further north, polystyrene packing “peanuts”, plastic-stemmed cotton buds and microbeads will all disappear from September 2023 under the Sunshine State’s new five-year plan.

The state began phasing out lightweight plastic shopping bags in 2018, and last year it outlawed plastic products including straws and stirrers.

“It’s great to see so many businesses already taking voluntary measures and going beyond our bans, and it is time to support those voluntary commitments and strengthen our actions in the fight against plastic pollution,” Queensland Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon said.

Similarly, Zahra said many of the ARA members are “scaling up innovative solutions to replace plastic with other materials or do away with single-use packaging altogether”.

“The sector has heard community concerns and is responding to the call for change, but the different approaches and timelines being adopted by each state and territory has made this much more costly and complex than is necessary.”

For instance, he says, last year NSW became the last state to ban plastic shopping bags — some 13 years after South Australia pioneered the ban.

“We estimate that since that time, the rules governing the phase-out of single-use plastics have changed 18 times in different jurisdictions across the country, moving the sector further away from national consistency,” Zahra said.

He says he applauds the state and territory governments for being proactive about their environmental policies, while a government survey showed residents are behind the restrictions on plastic bag bans too, with 90% of Queenslanders backing tighter rules.

“But we now have a complex program with different single-use plastics being phased out at different times in different parts of the country,” he said.

“For retailers that operate in multiple jurisdictions, this is a headache they could do without.”

When Victoria phased out plastic bags in 2017, Mount Evelyn IGA owner Tony Ingpen told SmartCompany that business owners will probably encounter some opposition from customers.

“You’ve got extremes in the world, you have people who never want to use a plastic bag, then you’ve got people who think it’s a crock,” he said.

“You are not going to convince people who think its a crock … you will get difficult customers.”

To reduce confusion and frustration, Zahra says the ARA is calling for the federal government to work with industry, community and state government to get a national framework together “with a mutually agreed timeline for the phase-out of single-use plastics that they can all stick to”.

“With plastics research on the global agenda in our memorandum of understanding with the US, it’s important to get alignment nationally as a basis for our global alignment,” Zahra said.

Retailers and organisations seeking advice can call the National Retail Association’s free hotline on 1800 844 946 for advice on single-use plastic bans.

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