In July 2019, New Zealand’s plastic industry underwent its biggest change to date. Single-use shopping bags were banned at supermarkets nationwide. In the subsequent years, we’ve seen more plastic items added to the no-go list, including, as of October 2022, polystyrene takeaway containers, plastic cotton buds, and drink stirrers.
Now, Australia is set to undergo its own plastic revolution, beginning this year.
Australia’s plastic problem.
It’s estimated that 130,000 tonnes of plastic leaks into waterways per year in Australia, including harmful microplastics. Taken as a global figure, around 30% of the world’s plastic leaks into the oceans, with only 13% of this waste being recyclable.
However, this figure has been shifting in the last fifteen years. The crackdown on plastics began in 2009 in Australia and is now ramping up, with Western Australia and Queensland following South Australia in their plastic legislation.
The real hold-up is with state regulation. Each separate state in Australia rules on its own plastic use instead of plastic production falling under a national policy. This means that changes take time and are dependent on local political bodies rather than a nationwide effort. However, this new shift will prompt the rest of the country to consider rethinking their own policies around single-use plastics.
Alongside the banning of single-use plastic bags, Western Australia and Queensland will also ban loose-fill polystyrene packaging and plastic microbeads, as well as mass balloon sales, plastic bowls, plates and cotton buds, the last of which is also being banned in South Australia.
The exact ban differs between states, and the biggest change has yet to come. Takeaway coffee cups, lids, and plastic bags for fruit and veg may be next. Plastics will also have to pass a much more stringent test, with a minimum requirement that they be (at least theoretically) reusable 125 times and constructed out of 80% recyclable materials. Again, this differs depending on the plastic type, but the overall aim is to reduce single-use packaging, replacing it with reusable, eco-friendly alternatives.
Comparing apples to kiwis.
The good news for Kiwis is that many of these changes have already been in effect in New Zealand, although their coverage hasn’t been as in-depth as the original shopping bag ban. As of the 1st of July this year, the manufacture and sale of single-use produce bags, cutlery and plates were banned, with a restriction on plastic straws and a further transitionary ban placed on plastic labels, to be phased out by 2025.
So, in terms of staying environmentally friendly, Kiwis are ahead of the game regarding plastic bans, although not on all items. Microbeads were the first plastic product to be banned in 2018, beginning the transitionary phase to ban all polystyrene and PVC products for packaging, food and drink by mid-2025. Again, the big win will be banning 150 million plastic bags from circulation annually in supermarkets, bags normally used to store loose fruits and other items. The phase-outs will prevent more than two billion plastic items from going into landfills a year.
Over 100 countries now have a full or partial ban on single-use plastics.
There is some cause for being sceptical in all this, although that scepticism shouldn’t outweigh the impressive work being done. The plastic bans mainly apply to lightweight plastic bags and container plastics sold in-store. The prohibitions are mostly around PVC and polystyrene plastics, which are among the largest, although five other varieties are not often listed in the ban.
The ban also doesn’t prevent shipping from areas without plastic restrictions, focusing on the selling and distributing of plastic. However, this does make it almost impossible for wholesalers to sell plastic products on mass.
Another area for improvement is food packaging. Foods that require sealing or come in plastic must comply with ‘specified polystyrene packaging for food or drink’, which does not ban plastic outright. Still, the move puts pressure on companies to be more forward with their own environmental agendas and to prove some eco-conscious commitment.
Mars, a company owned by Nestlé, is attempting to get ahead of the changes by switching their plastic wrappers to biodegradable paper wrappers, with a trial run of 500 Tesco stores in the UK. At the same time, the company will be switching to 80% recycled plastic for KitKats. So, while the Nestlé-owned company has had its fair share of environmental scandals, including the use of palm olive oil in its products, this latest switch is a move that all food packaging companies should be looking to make.
Coming back to Australasia.
The recent phasing out project in both New Zealand and Australia is nothing short of excellent, while at times a little too specific. Still, the number of effective bans has hit plastic use hard where it lives. But that doesn’t mean it's all over.
Plastic bottles are the next most significant item on Greenpeace’s agenda, along with the related issue of ghost fishing gear, nets, and other fishing implements left floating in the ocean for sea life to become trapped in. No specific policy exists around either threat, despite the significant harm they cause over other plastics and disposables. In particular, a separate ban on plastic bottles would go a long way to reducing plastic landfills, as bottles constitute one of the most disposed of plastics in circulation.
So, there’s still a way to go.
Feeling good about Eartha.
At Eartha, we have zero plastic tolerance on all our products, whether they’re shipping locally or internationally. We use recyclable cardboard and paper wrapping — and, of course, all our products are plastic-free. We also reduce the amount of packaging needed for each delivery so that none of our items come with more packaging than is required.
We’d love to see all companies adopt this model and support a plastic-free world. Because no matter where we live, our actions affect our entire planet.
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