Parliamentary inquiry into plastic pollution in Australia’s waterways and oceans

The ARA’s Director of Policy and Sustainability, Jason Robertson, recently appeared in front of the House Standing Committee on Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water to talk about the positive role that retailers are playing in addressing plastic pollution and the need for national consistency to accelerate impact.

The ARA represents thousands of small and large retailers who understand and share community concerns about the environmental impacts of plastic pollution, with more than 70% of respondents to two recent member surveys agreeing that it is a critical issue for retailers.

As a sector, we are taking positive steps to reduce the amount of plastic used in products and packaging, we are working proactively to make it easier for consumers to recycle plastics and we are supporting the establishment a circular recycling system to reduce the risk of plastics entering Australia’s oceans and waterways.

But solving for society’s reliance on plastic is not a challenge that retailers can address in isolation. We need to work in collaboration with other industry players, with the community and with government.

In recent years, we have seen higher levels of community support to tackle plastic pollution and phase-out single-use plastics. We have also seen stronger alignment between governments about the types of plastic products and packaging to be banned. And we’ve seen retailers increasing their investment in innovative solutions to meet the changing expectations of the communities they serve.

However, we have also encountered challenges that have made it difficult to accelerate the change that is expected of our sector.

The lack of a nationally consistent timeline for the phase-out of single-use plastics has made this a more costly and more complex transition than necessary. Competing and inconsistent policy settings across state borders have also made it difficult for retailers to know what alternatives to support. And mismatches between what government wants and what industry can realistically deliver have resulted in unintended financial and environmental impacts.

To be clear, we support the phase-out of single-use plastics and the need to improve recycling rates but this must be done at the least cost and least impact to business.

We also believe that we need a whole-of-society approach to addressing plastic pollution, with a functioning circular economy the key to addressing this issue. Part of this response is effective implementation of the National Plastics Plan.

As a sector, we are implementing single-use plastics bans, we are making design and sourcing decisions that increase the amount of plastic that can be recycled or repurposed at end of life, and we are adopting new technologies that minimise life-cycle environmental impacts and give consumers more choice.

However, we also need to make it easier for consumers to responsibly dispose of plastics that remain in use, through standardised collection systems and investment in recycling infrastructure. For us, this must be the primary focus of the National Plastics Plan going forward.

In terms of the Commonwealth Government’s engagement with state and territory governments, we want to acknowledge the positive changes that have taken place over the past 12 months under Minister Plibersek, working with her state and territory counterparts.

However, the lack of a nationally consistent timeline is still problematic because each state and territory is taking their own approach to the phase-out of single-use plastics.

This approach isn’t working for large, national retailers. Nor is it working for the thousands of small and medium-sized retail businesses who rely on big retailers to drive big changes that benefit the whole sector through lower costs.

At last count, there were 24 different types of plastic packaging and products that are in the process of being phased out across the country. On face value, this may not seem like an overly complex change, but when you overlay eight different approaches and eight different timelines being pursued by eight different jurisdictions, the complexity increases.

That’s why we need a nationally agreed timeline and approach.

Despite the challenges outlined today, our members are making a positive difference. They are leading the phase-out of single-use plastics, making it easier for consumers to recycle, and investing in innovative solutions that will drive further positive change.

As the country’s largest peak body for retail, the ARA will continue to help our members navigate and drive these important changes, as we work together to reduce the impact of plastic pollution on Australia’s oceans and waterways.

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To help retail businesses navigate these changes, the ARA has developed an online resource at retail.org.au/plastics including on-demand webinar content and an overview of bans across the country.

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