Using lots of plastic packaging during the coronavirus crisis? You’re not alone


Daiane Scaraboto, University of Melbourne; Alison M Joubert, The University of Queensland, and Claudia Gonzalez-Arcos, The University of Queensland

In eight years, US environmentalist and social media star Lauren Singer had never sent an item of rubbish to landfill. But last month, in an impassioned post to her 383,000 Instagram followers, she admitted the reality of COVID-19 has changed that.

I sacrificed my values and bought items in plastic. Lots of it, and plastic that I know isn’t recyclable in NYC (New York City) recycling or maybe even anywhere … why would I go against something that I have actively prioritised and promoted?

Singer wrote that as the seriousness of COVID-19 dawned, she stocked up on items she’d need if confined to her home for a long period – much of it packaged in plastic.

Her confession encapsulates how the pandemic has challenged those of us who are trying to reduce our waste. Many sustainability-conscious people may now find themselves with cupboards stocked with plastic bottles of hand sanitiser, disposable wipes and takeaway food containers.

So let’s look at why this is happening, and what to do about it.

Sustainability out the window

We research how consumers respond to change, such as why consumers largely resisted single-use plastic bag bans. Recently we’ve explored how the coronavirus has changed the use of plastic bags, containers and other disposable products.

Amid understandable concern over health and hygiene during the pandemic, the problem of disposable plastics has taken a back seat.

For example, Coles’ home delivery service is delivering items in plastic bags (albeit reusable ones) and many coffee shops have banned reusable mugs, including global Starbucks branches.




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Restaurants and other food businesses can now only offer home delivery or takeaway options. Many won’t allow customers to bring their own containers, defaulting to disposables which generate plastic waste. This means many consumers can’t reduce their plastic waste, even if they wanted to.

Demand for products such as disposable wipes, cleaning agents, hand sanitiser, disposable gloves and masks is at a record high. Unfortunately, they’re also being thrown out in unprecedented volumes.

And the imperative to prevent the spread of coronavirus means tonnes of medical waste is being generated. For example, hospitals and aged care facilities have been advised to double-bag clinical waste from COVID-19 patients. While this is a necessary measure, it adds to the plastic waste problem.

Many cafes will not accept reusable cups during the health crisis.
The Conversation

Cause for hope

Sustainability and recycling efforts are continuing. Soft plastics recycler Red Cycle is still operating. However many dropoff points for soft plastics, such as schools and council buildings, are closed, and some supermarkets have removed their dropoff bins.

Boomerang Alliance’s Plastic Free Places program has launched a guide for cafes and restaurants during COVID-19. It shows how to avoid single-use plastics, and what compostable packaging alternatives are available.

As the guide notes, “next year the coronavirus will hopefully be a thing of the past but plastic pollution won’t be. It’s important that we don’t increase plastic waste and litter in the meantime.”

Old habits die hard

In the US, lobbyists for the plastic industry have taken advantage of health fears by arguing single-use plastic bags are a more hygienic option than reusable ones. Plastic bag bans have since been rolled back in the US and elsewhere.

However, there is little evidence to show plastic bags are a safer option, and at least reusable cloth bags can be washed.

A relaxation on plastic bag bans – even if temporary – is likely to have long-term consequences for consumer behaviour. Research shows one of the biggest challenges in promoting sustainable behaviours is to break old habits and adopt new ones. Once people return to using plastic bags, the practice becomes normalised again.

In Europe, the plastic industry is using the threat of coronavirus contamination to push back against a ban on single-use plastics such as food containers and cutlery.

Such reframing of plastic as a “protective” health material can divert attention from its dangers to the environment. Prior research, as well as our preliminary findings, suggest these meanings matter when it comes to encouraging environmentally friendly behaviours.




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Many people are using their time at home to clear out items they no longer need. However, most second-hand and charity shops are closed, so items that might have had a second life end up in landfill.

Similarly, many tool, book and toy libraries are closed, meaning some people will be buying items they might otherwise have borrowed.

Once consumers go back to using plastic bags, it will take time to break the habit again.
Darren England/AAP

What to do

We can expect the environmental cause will return to the foreground when the COVID-19 crisis has passed. In the meantime, reuse what you have, and try to store rather than throw out items for donation or recycling.

Talk to takeaway food outlets about options for using your own containers, and refuse disposable cutlery or napkins with deliveries. Use the time to upskill your coffee-making at home rather than buying it in a takeaway cup. And look for grocery suppliers offering more sustainable delivery packaging, such as cardboard boxes or biodegradable bags.

Above all, be vigilant about ways environmental protections such as plastic bag bans might be undermined during the pandemic, and voice your concerns to politicians.




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The Conversation


Daiane Scaraboto, Associate Professor of Marketing, University of Melbourne; Alison M Joubert, Lecturer in Marketing, The University of Queensland, and Claudia Gonzalez-Arcos, Lecturer in Marketing, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Only half of packaging waste is recycled – here’s how to do better


Ben Madden, University of Technology Sydney and Nick Florin, University of Technology Sydney

Almost half of Australia’s packaging waste is not being recovered for recycling, according to the first comprehensive study to track the fate of used packaging materials.

Overall, 56% of packaging was recovered for recycling in 2017-18, according to our study, carried out at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures and published by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, a not-for-profit group that aims to reduce the environmental impact of packaging and is leading the effort to implement the National Packaging Targets.

Only 32% of plastic packaging was recovered for recycling, whereas the figure for paper and cardboard was 72%.

Total amounts of packaging waste generated and recovered in Australia for the 2017-18 financial year.
APCO/UTS ISF

Used packaging materials such as glass, paper, metal and plastic make up 15% of all recyclable waste generated in Australia, according to our calculations based on available government data. By taking a snapshot of our current performance in recovering these materials, we can identify which areas are most in need of attention. This will help us work towards a “circular economy” approach in which packaging materials are reclaimed, reused and recycled, rather than thrown away.




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The chart below shows that the most significant losses to landfill happen before waste is collected for sorting. Households and businesses are still throwing recyclable packaging, approximately 32% of total packaging consumed, into red bins instead of into recycling.

The fate of Australia’s recyclables.
APCO/UTS ISF

The 56% recovery figure includes packaging material recovered for export, as well as materials that are currently stockpiled. This includes glass which is not currently in high demand for local manufacturing.

Waste exported overseas represents a significant proportion – about 34% – of total packaging waste recovered. Evidently, there is a clear opportunity to improve local waste management practices and grow local demand for products that contain recycled materials. This would help make Australia’s packaging system more resilient to fluctuations in global markets.

The biggest recent market shock was the recycling crisis sparked by China’s decision to limit the imports of large amounts of recyclable materials.




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In April last year, state and federal environment ministers and local governments reacted to that crisis with the launch of the National Packaging Targets. This included a pledge to pursue circular economy principles.

In practice, this means avoiding packaging waste, improving local recovery of recyclables, and increasing the demand for products that contain recycled materials. Already we have seen major brands such as Unilever commit to using at least 25% locally sourced recycled plastic in packaging such as shampoo bottles. This is a big step in the right direction, and aligns with the trending global agenda to eliminate plastic pollution.

However, developing a circular economy for packaging in Australia requires coordinated action across the whole supply chain. This includes manufacturers, brand owners, consumers, and the resource recovery sector.

Better source separation is important and this requires consumer education and awareness raising, as well as smarter design of packaging to make it easier to recycle. These strategies are already supported by the new Australasian Recycling Label, which could potentially be mandated for all types of packaging.

A further consequence of better source separation is a reduction in the contamination of the collected materials. This would improve the efficiency of the material recovery facilities (MRFs) that sort the mixed recyclables into separate streams for reprocessing.

What we also need is more and better data on packaging consumption and recycling infrastructure capabilities. Some future actions are clear, such as addressing problematic plastic packaging. Others decisions that might involve broad systemic interventions need more information about the best way to encourage packaging circularity. Key to success will be the willingness of all stakeholders to develop a collective, consistent and proactive approach to information sharing and problem solving.


This article was coauthored by Brooke Donnelly, chief executive of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation.The Conversation

Ben Madden, Senior Research Consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The new 100% recyclable packaging target is no use if our waste isn’t actually recycled



File 20180503 153884 180g652.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
These are already 100% recyclable – the trick is to actually recycle them.
Srisakorn Wonglakorn/Shutterstock.com

Atiq Zaman, Curtin University

Commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers last week agreed on an ambitious target that 100% of Australian packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. This is no doubt sensible, given the turmoil sparked by China’s crackdown on waste imports.

Having a 100% target is fantastic. But this does not mean that all of the waste we generate in 2025 will necessarily find its way to one of these destinations.

For one thing, the definitions of different waste categories vary by state and territory, so there is no commonly accepted working definition of what constitutes “recyclable, compostable or reusable”.




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In practice, these terms depend largely on the infrastructure available. Single-use plastic bags are a good example of a product that is technically recyclable but which is not accepted in most councils’ kerbside recycling collection. That’s because they are often contaminated with food waste and many councils lack the machinery to process them.

On its own, the new 100% target is not enough, because it doesn’t guarantee that recyclable or reusable items will definitely be recycled or reused. To really make a difference, we also need policies and market incentives to ensure that these things end up where we want them to.

Driving recycling

We can see this principle in action by looking at the issue of drink containers. Glass and plastic bottles are already 100% recyclable, yet there is a stark difference in recycling rates between states that do have container deposit schemes, and those that don’t.

In South Australia, which has had container deposit legislation for more than 40 years, almost 80% of drink bottles are recycled. But in Western Australia, where similar legislation is only at the discussion stage, the rate is just 65%.

Despite the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ attempt at a National Waste Account in 2013, little nationwide data are available, thanks to a lack of a consistent reporting framework across different jurisdictions.

Plastic not fantastic

In sectors where not all waste is fully recyclable, the problem is more complex still. Of the seven categories of plastic packaging, only three are economically viable to recycle: PET (soft drink bottles); HDPE (milk bottles); and PVC (shampoo bottles). The other four – LDPE (garbage bags); PP (microwaveable cookware); PS (foam hot drink cups); and other plastics – are less economically viable and so are recycled at much lower rates. While these plastics will still be allowed under the new target as they are technically recyclable, the new target might prompt a switch to less problematic materials.

Globally, around 78 million tonnes of plastic is used every year, but only 14% is collected for recycling, while 14% is incinerated and the remaining 72% ends up in landfill or as litter in the environment.

The fate of the world’s plastics.
Author provided

The problems are no less vexing for other types of waste. With market rates for many types of recyclable paper having dropped to zero in the wake of China’s import restrictions, it will be hard to see how some products will be recycled at all, if left purely to economic forces.

Retailers may have to embrace more innovative solutions to improve the quality of recycling waste, such as reverse vending machines, which accept items such as aluminium cans and plastic or glass bottles – as long as they are cleaned and sorted. However, without creating a local waste market or government incentives, we cannot expect retailers to buy their packaging back.

And this is before we even consider the complexities of composting and reuse. Compostable waste as a whole is already facing problems due to a high contamination rate, and lack of separate bin for recycling organic waste in many local councils. Reuse, meanwhile, needs us to tackle the eternal problem of people’s perceptions and behaviour about using old packaging again.

Will some kinds of packaging disappear?

Under the product stewardship initiative, which calls on producers and retailers to take care of the waste produced after consumption of goods, it seems more likely that some materials will simply be phased out of the product supply chain altogether.

The impending plastic bag bans in several states and leading supermarkets offers a chance to replace them not with heavier, more durable plastic, but with biodegradable, renewable and eco-friendly natural materials such as hemp.

In turn, this would boost hemp production (alongside the legalisation of hemp-based medicine and food products in Australia). This could lead to the opportunity for manufacturing industry to produce environmentally friendly biodegradable plastics. Hemp-based biodegradable plastic would significantly safeguard the environment, even if we failed to achieve a 100% recycling of biodegradable plastic packaging. Similarly, glass or aluminium might be used instead of plastic, and are more easily recycled.

Even more innovatively, we might even see the arrival of edible packaging derived from the milk protein casein, formed into film rather like plastic cling wrap, which can be used to package foods such as butter or cheese.




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We need a better target

We’ve established that it’s not enough simply to set a target of making 100% of our waste recyclable, compostable or reusable. To really feel the benefits we need a follow-on target, such as actually recycling 100% of our packaging by 2030.

For this to work, we would need three things:

  1. legislation, regulations or incentives for manufacturers to develop new packaging types;
  2. an increase in public participation rates in recycling; and
  3. the development of a strong domestic market for recyclable materials.

The ConversationFinally, we should remember that waste prevention is better than waste management. Everyone – from governments, to manufacturers, to retailers, to consumers – should focus first on generating less waste in the first place. Then the fiendish problem of what to do with our waste will be all the smaller.

Atiq Zaman, Lecturer, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.