Consumer products giant calls for Australia to step up war on plastic pollution

One of the world's biggest consumer products companies, Unilever, is calling on the Federal Government to lead in the war against plastic pollution by introducing an agreement for companies.

While the Government has pledged to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, Unilever is calling for "stronger co-ordination around how targets are delivered".

The Government has not set a target for how much recycled content it wants to see in packaging, so Unilever says it has been "leading from the front", re-inventing its packaging to include recycled plastic.

It recently launched a locally-manufactured plant-based laundry detergent in a bottle made from 25 per cent recycled plastic, estimating that a year of average sales for the product would be equivalent to removing 7 million single-use plastic bags from the environment.

The company now plans to expand its use of recycled plastic to other brands.

But businesses spending on innovation to improve sustainability risk being undercut by rivals using cheaper virgin materials.

"To what degree can the Government help industry take the right decisions and provide incentives?" Unilever Australia and New Zealand chief executive Clive Stiff said.

Photo Unlike the UK, Australia doesn't require companies to hit sustainability targets

Bits of plastic bag and cardboard are stacked in two separate piles at Re.Group's Hume waste facility. ABC News: Matthew Roberts

Mr Stiff said it would be "great" if Australia introduced a similar agreement to the UK's Plastics Pact, which has committed some of the world's biggest companies — including Unilever — to a set of sustainability targets.

"That would speed up things considerably," he said.

"To the degree that such an agreement could be monitored and binding, so much the better."

An agreement would also establish certain and predictable demand for post-consumer recycled plastic, which is still scarce in Australia and more expensive than virgin materials, Mr Stiff said.

'What are the next steps to get there?'

Marcus Gover, the chief executive of NGO Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP), which was instrumental in bringing about the UK's plastics agreement, welcomed Australia's new plastic packaging target, but said it was only the first step.

"Trying to put together a roadmap about how to get to these targets would be a good next step," Mr Gover said during a visit to Sydney.

"If packaging is going to be recyclable and you're going to get it all recycled, then what are the next steps to get there?"

Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said setting the target was a big move in itself.

"That's a significant change. It's an ambitious target and we could reach it earlier," he said.

Mr Frydenberg said it was "a message to industry to adjust, to put in place new processes, new guidelines and to deliver on that objective by 2025 or earlier".

Recycling differences 'slowing things down'

Unilever also called for the right policy settings to be put in place, and some standardisation of the waste management laws and regulations in place across three tiers of government.

"Recycling facilities across Australia are at different stages of life [regarding] what they will accept and what they won't," Mr Stiff said.

"Certain things are recyclable in some council areas, but not in others. All of that makes it extremely complex and slows things down."

Photo Recycling facilities across Australia are at different stages of life.

A forklift scoops a large pile of recyclable material such as plastic bottles at a recycling facility. ABC News: Kathryn Diss

Mr Frydenberg said the Government was committed to expanding domestic recycling.

"We're going to work constructively with the states and territories and industry to improve and increase our domestic recycling capacity," he said.

This week, supermarket Woolworths banned single-use plastic bags. Its competitor Coles will follow next week.

Both companies have committed to reduce the amount of plastic packaging in their stores and increase recycled content on their shelves.

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