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New packaging solution for plastic recycling in Australia

CASTLE HILL, Australia: What started as a small nursery industry workshop late in 2019 has evolved into a nationally-funded plastic recycling initiative with the Australian Government’s support.

Several pilot programmes in plastic plant packaging recycling have run in recent years, but the workshop participants had grander ideas to turn them into a national programme.

Understanding the polypropylene challenge

2025 National Packaging Targets of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) Graphic provided by APCO and the Australian government

Plastic products and packaging are integral to modern daily life and their consumption in Australia has increased exponentially. While plastic and packaging recycling in Australia is well-established, only 18 per cent of plastic is for recycling or energy recovery. Australia’s 2025 National Packaging Targets include a target for all packaging to be 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) is the agency leading the delivery of the 2025 Targets. It works on the ground with a range of sectors – including the greenlife industry – to help address their specific waste and recycling challenges. A study commissioned by APCO in 2019 found, for example, that in 2018/19, only 13.5 per cent of polypropylene (PP5) packaging on the market was recovered for recycling (~21,000 from 155,000 tonnes). This calculation is despite PP5 being relatively easy to mould.

The greenlife and nursery industry is a large user of PP5 products, namely pots, labels, stakes, trays, and tubs. One major plastic pot manufacturer in Australia, Garden City Plastics (GCP), currently use over 7,000 tonnes of recycled PP5 annually to manufacture pots and containers for these customers. GCP aims to increase that amount to 10,000 or 11,000 tonnes by the end of 2021. However, a better national collection and sorting system of PP5 ‘waste’ needs to be established to help meet this goal.

Bringing industry together for a new approach

In 2019, GCP and APCO coordinated the workshop with key industry players to discuss how to “close the loop” on plant packaging and evolved to a more circular economy approach for PP5 across the nursery industry. While the pilot studies demonstrate a method for industry, there is still much PP5 collected through local councils’ household kerbside recycling systems. It ends up in mixed plastic bales for downgraded uses such as road base or waste to energy applications. Black PP5 packaging is sent directly to the landfill because Material Recovery Facilities use infrared technology that cannot currently recognise carbon black, and ‘see’ that shape as a void, sending it to landfill.

A ‘call to arms’ presentation was made at the Greenlife Industry Australia (GIA) conference held in Perth last year. It was one of the last face-to-face conferences conducted in Australia and possibly worldwide due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

To address these challenges, APCO and GIA established a working group intending to develop a voluntary framework for standardising the use of sustainable and recyclable plastics in the greenlife industry. Over 60 industry stakeholders attended the first industry-wide workshop on sustainable packaging for the nursery industry in June 2020, jointly hosted by the APCO, GCP and GIA.

Camerons Nursery owner Sonja Cameron and Brad Brown from, Arcadia, NSW

Camerons Nursery owner Sonja Cameron and Brad Brown from, Arcadia, NSW

Participants were provided with an overview of Australia’s packaging issue and heard about the challenges for the industry concerning the collection and sorting of PP5. The workshop identified an industry goal to increase its use of recycled PP5 from 8,000 tonnes per year to 12,000 tonnes per year, a 50% increase by 2025.

The discussion identified that, while plastic plant pots had been the initial driver for the programme, all products made from PP5, including plant labels, trays, stakes and tags across the horticulture supply chain, could be included in the collection plan. During the workshop, it was emphasised that the PP5 recycling scheme was an ‘all of industry’ opportunity to support sustainable packaging in horticulture and open to all industry businesses.

The workshop was a very positive way for all participants from all sectors of the greenlife industry to provide input into the scheme. It was acknowledged that the initiative provided an opportunity for the greenlife industry to maximise the resource recovery potential for PP5 in Australia, and support consumer education for pot recycling pathways.

Continued progress

Cameron nursery production, Arcadia in New South Wales.

Cameron nursery production, Arcadia in New South Wales.

A second workshop convened by APCO and GIA was conducted in October to update participants on the PP5 recycling initiative and seize on an opportunity offered by the Australian Government through an application for funding through National Product Stewardship Investment Fund. A grant would provide valuable resources to drive further and accelerate the development of a programme.

The APCO and GIA application was successful. Federal government funding was approved to establish the Polypropylene Plant Packaging Recycling (PoPPr) for plant pots, trays, tags and stakes. GIA and APCO will work closely with greenlife and nursery sector supply chain participants across Australia to design and implement an industry-endorsed network of collection points for plant packaging. This action will enable Australians to return their plant packaging for recycling into new plant packaging and close the loop on horticultural PP5.

The project has now commenced, and the first workshop for 2021 was conducted on 16 February. The workshop provided an update on progress with activities and to keep interested industry participants informed of developments and how they can maintain their involvement.

In 2021, the plant packaging project will become part of the ANZPAC Plastics Pact, a new APCO-led programme launching in the Oceania region. It will bring together key players behind a circular economy’s shared vision for plastic, which never becomes waste or pollution.

ANZPAC is part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global Plastics Pact network.

For more information about this new collaborative project, or the ANZPAC programme visit www.ANZPACplasticspact.org.au

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