Plastics are a versatile, cost-efficient, lightweight and hygienic group of materials. They were originally invented in the 1860s to replace elephant ivory for billiard balls (one tusk produced roughly 5 balls).
Plastics inspire and enable countless design opportunities for innovations that help make life better, healthier and safer every day, and contribute to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The Australian Plastics Industry
The plastics industry employs 34,500 people in 2,500 business Australia wide and contributed $3.3 billion of GDP in 2017-181. It is intrinsically linked to critical supply chains of key industries across the economy. Major market segments include manufacturing, including food and packaging, transport, electrical and electronics; construction; services; mining, and agriculture.
The industry manufacturers and imports raw materials (polymers), designs and manufactures these into finished goods to meet consumer demand and is involved in recovering and recycling these back into new raw materials for ongoing use into increasingly circular economies.
Australians consume approximately 3.5 million tonnes of plastic products each year2, which is approximately 1 per cent of global demand. Of this, 60 per cent of plastic products consumed are imported finished goods and semi-finished goods3, with 40 per cent met through local manufacturing using either virgin resins or recycled resins.
Plastics products have a range of working lifespans including items such as short-term consumer packaging (up to one year), medium-term automotive parts, supermarket and milk crates (1-10 years) and long-term infrastructure such as mains water pipes (more than 50 years).
Plastic products contribute to sustainable food production (crop protection films, water tanks and irrigation pipes, processing tanks, trays, fittings and fixtures), and help reduce food wastage by keeping food fresher for longer (industrial, commercial and consumer packaging). Reducing waste also helps reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Plastic products improve our health and well-being through the delivery of clean drinking water to our towns and households and the removal of waste through a range of poly pipes, fittings and tanks. This helps protect us from illness and prevents the spread of disease. Medical and surgical supplies, personal protective equipment, flooring and fittings are the material of choice for hospitals and surgeries.
Plastic products improve safety and reduce injury through seatbelts and airbags in cars, child safety seats and bicycle helmets, and personal protective equipment for our police, fire fighters and armed forces.
Plastic products help to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gases by improving the insulation in our homes and other buildings.
The lightweight, hygienic and cost-effective properties of plastic products help industry, government and communities achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This includes objectives under #6 – Clean Water and Sanitation, #7 – Affordable and Clean Energy, and #12 – Responsible Consumption and Production.
Plastic products have been found to have a lower total greenhouse gas contribution than alternatives in most applications across product life cycles. For example, the environmental cost of plastic in consumer goods has been reported as 3.8 times less than the alternative materials that would need to replace plastics4.
Creating an Australian Plastics Circular Economy
Chemistry Australia is committed to helping create an Australian Plastics Circular Economy. This system prioritises resource conservation and efficiency, using design innovations that enable longer product lifespans, as well as re-use, recovery and recycling technologies that transform used products into high value resources. This allows society to capture the greatest value from materials that have traditionally been discarded and make them available for the manufacture of new plastic products.
In addition to increasing the mechanical recycling of plastics, Chemistry Australia members are investing in advanced recycling technologies (also known as chemical recycling) to further increase the type and amount of plastic products recycled in Australia.
Advanced recycling is increasingly being used overseas to convert plastic waste into high-value recycled plastics. Advanced recycling is complementary to mechanical recycling and Australia will need both technologies to achieve a Plastics Circular Economy.
Chemistry Australia has collaborated with CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, on a report into advanced recycling. Advanced recycling technologies to address Australia’s plastic waste explains the range of advanced recycling technology types, their contributions, and the pathways needed for their introduction.
To find out more about the CSIRO Advanced Recycling Report, visit the CSIRO website.
Eliminating Plastic Pollution
Plastic products at the end of their life can also end up as pollution on land, in rivers and oceans, creating environmental and other problems. This is a complex, global issue that will need coordinated action by governments, industry and communities to solve. The United Nations has identified that globally, “A shift to a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80 per cent by 2040; reduce virgin plastic production by 55 per cent; save governments US$70 billion by 2040; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent; and create 700,000 additional jobs – mainly in the global south”5.
Operation Clean Sweep®
Operation Clean Sweep is a global program designed to help the plastics and logistics industries eliminate the loss of plastic resin pellets, flake and powders from all parts of the plastics value-chain into the environment.
Chemistry Australia is the joint licensee with the Tangaroa Blue Foundation, which manages Operation Clean Sweep Australia®. We encourage all part of the plastics value chain in Australia to sign on to this important initiative and demonstrate their commitment to helping eliminate plastic pollution.
CSIRO Mission to end plastic waste
Chemistry Australia has partnered with CSIRO on its Ending Plastic Waste Mission, with the target of reducing plastic waste into the environment by 80 per cent by 2030. The mission aims to use science and technology to inform and develop a range of solutions to prevent plastic waste entering our environment, as well as transform the way we use, re-use and recycle plastics at their end of life.
National Plastics Plan
Chemistry Australia supports the Federal Government’s National Plastics Plan 2021, which comprehensively maps a pathway to support the sustainable use of Australia’s valuable plastic resources. The National Plastics Plan recognises the need for all stakeholders across industry, governments, and consumers to work together to significantly reduce waste and boost the recovery and reuse of plastics at their end of life.
There is a growing number of product stewardship schemes in Australia, ensuring that a greater range of plastic products at the end of their lifespans can be collected, re-purposed and recycled.
Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), a not-for-profit organisation leading the development of a circular economy for packaging in Australia.
APCO works with governments, businesses and other organisations from across Australia’s large and complex packaging value chain to deliver a co-regulatory framework which recognises that all sectors and governments have both a responsibility and a role to play to find the best possible solutions for packaging efficiency and sustainability in Australia.
Chemistry Australia is a member of APCO and supports the 2025 National Packaging Targets, along with the obligations set out in the Australian Packaging Covenant. It also participates in APCO advisory groups to support delivery of the APCO targets and objectives.
UN Treaty to End Plastic Pollution
The United Nations Environment Assembly resolved in March 2022 to develop a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution (Resolution 5/14) . The treaty will be developed by member governments, with plans for the treaty to be finalised by 2024/25. The resolution recognises the international transboundary nature of plastic pollution and the importance of globally coordinated national actions by governments, industry and communities, based on sound science and policy, to achieve positive outcomes.
Chemistry Australia supports the development of a suitable treaty able to coordinate the global actions required. We are working closely with the Australian Government and the global plastics industry to provide input and advice about how to create positive change, including using the significant capability of the Australian plastics industry.
Global Partners for Plastics Circularity
As a member of the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), Chemistry Australia is part of the Global Partners for Plastics Circularity. Its website maps the ambition and actions to support governments developing and implementing a balanced UN Treaty to end plastic pollution.