Written by Jason Robertson, ARA Director of Sustainability and Impact
You could be mistaken for thinking that the phase-out of single-use plastics is the single biggest sustainability issue for our members right now.
And you could be right. We know that there is strong community support for taking decisive action to reduce plastic pollution and we know that retailers will play an important role in meeting this objective. However, our members are telling us that they have other sustainability priorities that are as important, or more important, than managing the move away from plastics to more sustainable alternatives.
So, what is the state of play in relation to single-use plastics?
In April 2021, environment ministers from Federal, state and territory governments signalled the strong intent for one national approach to the phase-out of “problematic and unnecessary” plastics by 2025.
National harmonisation would help retailers minimise the cost and complexity of moving away from single-use plastics, particularly for our members who operate across multiple jurisdictions. It would also provide a unique opportunity to minimise the cost and impact of change for smaller retailers, by leveraging the scale of the ARA’s largest members to deliver cost-effective solutions for the whole sector.
As things stand today though, each state and territory has set out their own process and timelines to phase-out single-use plastics. This may help governments engage with their own constituents about what is being done at a local level to address plastic pollution, but this approach creates confusion and complexity for retailers as we’ve tried to demonstrate below.
SA positions itself as the first mover on the phase-out of single-use plastics, starting with lightweight plastic bags in March 2009 and then moving onto plastic cutlery and straws earlier this year. The next stage of the SA phase-out will be implemented in March 2022, covering polystyrene dinnerware, cups and food packaging. More detail on SA’s approach to single-use plastics.
ACT phased out lightweight plastic bags in November 2011 and launched the next phase of its plastics ban at the start of July 2021, covering plastic dinnerware, plastic cutlery and polystyrene food packaging. The next phase for ACT commences in July 2022 and will include (amongst other items) plastic straws. More detail on plastic bans in ACT.
QLD banned lightweight plastic bags in July 2018 and is the next jurisdiction to implement bans on plastic dinnerware, plastic cutlery and polystyrene food packaging, which will be phased-out by September 2021. A ban on plastic straws will also take effect at the same time. More detail on the QLD government’s approach.
TAS banned lightweight plastic bags in June 2013, but the state government has not yet responded to community calls to phase-out other items. However, the Hobart City Council has recently introduced a bi-law that bans single-use plastic takeaway food packaging, plastic straws and plastic cutlery effective from July 2021. More detail on Hobart City Council’s ban.
NSW announced a comprehensive, considered approach to the phase-out of plastics in June 2021. Plastic cutlery, plastic straws and polystyrene food containers will be banned from January 2023, providing retailers in NSW more than 18 months to prepare for and manage the change. The phase-out of other single-use plastics will be subject to a review sometime in 2024. More detail on the NSW plastics and waste plan.
VIC has announced even more conservative timeframes, with a ban on plastic straws, plastic dinnerware, plastic cutlery and polystyrene food packaging to come into effect in March 2023. More detail on the VIC government’s approach.
WA recently announced the most aggressive deadlines and expansive scope of changes, including Australian first bans on heavier boutique plastic bags by the end of 2021, and takeaway coffee cups and lids by the end of 2022. WA will also ban plastic dinnerware, plastic cutlery and plastic straws by the end of 2021, providing retailers with six months to comply. The ARA has expressed its serious concerns about the plan with the WA government and has been invited to sit on an industry working group to ensure changes are implemented in a manner that optimises community adoption, while minimising adverse financial and environmental outcomes. More information on WA’s approach.
There is no question that the phase-out of single-use plastics is an important issue for our members. There is strong community support for change and the ARA is committed to working constructively with all stakeholders to help manage this transition but the disparate approach that state and territory governments are taking means that these changes are more complex and more costly than they need to be.
Are these phase-outs the most important sustainability issue for Australian retailers?
Our members are telling us no. While managing the phase-out of single-use plastics is important, our members have other more immediate and more important sustainability priorities. We have conducted extensive research and consultation in recent months to understand these priorities and the role that the ARA could play in supporting our members deliver on their sustainability targets.
More recently, we have supplemented discussions with the ARA’s Sustainability Advisory Committee with a member survey that aims to identify the most important sustainability issues across our broad and diverse membership. Specifically, we hope that the survey will allow us to look at the sustainability priorities for small and medium sized businesses, in comparison to our larger members who may have established programs and dedicated resources in place.
Responses to this survey will help us to develop a sustainability strategy that helps our members address their immediate priorities and then aims to shape the sustainability agenda for Australian retail.
Stay tuned for information about the results from our member survey and our plans to develop a member-centric sustainability strategy for a more sustainable retail sector.