Developing a circular economy for used packaging in Australia requires a fundamental system change, involving coordinated action across the whole supply chain from manufacturers, brand owners, consumers, and the resource recovery sector. Circular economies require a shift from a ‘take, make, dispose’ consumption model to a ‘circular’ model where resources are kept in use as long as possible. Shifting the management of used packaging is an important part of transitioning Australia to a circular economy. The recent challenges faced by our recycling sector in the wake of China’s decision to halt the imports of large amounts of recyclable materials have helped focus the attention to our collective ability to recover greater value from used packaging materials.

Packaging waste is currently a poorly characterised waste stream in Australia and the materials from packaging – post-consumer glass, paper, metal and plastic – also have a very low rate of recovery for manufacturing new products, or for energy generation. A more detailed understanding of the material flows for packaging supports the development of appropriate management solutions and strategies to transition to a circular economy approach.

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) commissioned the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney (ISF) to characterise the waste material flows through the Australian waste packaging system, using material flow analysis (MFA) methodology. MFA assists in visualising the flows of packaging materials throughout the Australian waste system, from consumption through to reprocessing. This analysis provides a comprehensive understanding of the collection, sorting and recovery systems in Australia, identifying a range of potential strategies across the value chain to improve recovery of packaging.

Analysis was undertaken for the postconsumer glass, paper, metal, and plastic packaging waste systems in Australia for the 2017/18 financial year. These material flow estimates were used as a baseline for evaluating future scenarios to improve packaging waste management in Australia, towards the implementation of a circular economy for packaging. Importantly, the results provide estimates for packaging currently being collected, sorted, recovered and recycled at the end of its useful life. Efforts to improve packaging design to make it recyclable are focused at the manufacturing stage of the packaging lifecycle, and thus fall outside of the scope of this analysis.

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