On a two-kilometre stretch of the Yarra River east of Melbourne’s CBD a few years ago, volunteers were gathering rubbish from the banks and reeds.
Among all the discarded bottles and bits of plastic sucked up with an oversized vacuum were an estimated 5 million pieces of expanded polystyrene – some in the form of tiny white balls, others in chunks at various stages of disintegration.
“It is not how a river should look,” says Andrew Kelly, the fulltime Yarra riverkeeper on the ubiquity of this feather-light expanded plastic, known as EPS.
A detailed study last year by the Yarra Riverkeeper Association found about half the litter in the river was expanded polystyrene.
“We didn’t expect it,” Kelly says. “People don’t like it – they feel it’s disrespectful.”
The group is in the middle of a study to work out where all the polystyrene is coming from, but Kelly thinks he has a good idea.
“It’s coming from poorly managed loading docks at shopping centres … building sites are the other contributor,” he says. “It just really frustrates me that it feels unnecessary to ruin something that’s beautiful because of inadequate regulation and management. We really need government to step up because it’s bloody ugly.”
Data provided to the Guardian from the Australian Marine Debris Initiative shows from January 2019 to December 2020, some 360,000 pieces of polystyrene packaging and food containers were collected at 6,400 river and coastal clean-up events.
Heidi Tait is the chief executive of Tangaroa Blue, a charity that coordinates rubbish clean-ups on beaches and waterways around Australia and maintains the Australian Marine Debris Initiative.
“In some places it’s horrifying,” she says. “It looks like snow. The problem is that when it’s out there, it just keeps blowing around.”
She agrees a major source of EPS is from poorly maintained loading docks and skip bins at the back of shops and supermarkets where goods are received.
As anyone who has handled the material will know, expanded polystyrene can easily break apart and blow away, often ending up in drains and creeks.
Tait says: “These loading docks are quite atrocious. It’s that cumulative flow [of material into the environment] that’s causing the problem.”
Last week, the federal government announced it would bring forward a planned phase-out of expanded polystyrene for products bought by consumers from 2025 to 2022.
That includes the moulded white blocks used to protect TVs and all manner of other consumer goods, as well as food containers.
The phase-out of polystyrene packaging used to move goods from one business to another won’t come into effect until 2025. The phase-out doesn’t apply to the boxes used to transport food that needs to stay chilled, or to polystyrene used for medical supplies.
The government has tasked the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation to work across the industry to co-ordinate all the targets, with an overarching aim for 100% of packaging to be “reusable, recyclable or compostable”.
APCO says 16,000 tonnes of EPS was “placed on market” in 2018-19, with 5,000 tonnes of that used in products sold to consumers. Only 4,000 tonnes were recovered.
But there are questions over compliance and how governments have been enforcing the targets under complicated arrangements that apply to companies with annual turnover exceeding $5m.
A review of the arrangements, commissioned by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, said companies could either voluntarily sign up to the covenant, or choose to be regulated under the National Environment Protection (Used Packaging Materials) Measure 2011, which is enforced by the states and territories.
According to the review, APCO had identified 1,919 brands that had not signed the covenant, and so should be regulated by the states and territories.
But across four years, the review said, not a single enforcement action had taken place under those measures.
“This does not indicate an absence of non-compliance from liable brand owners, but an absence of compliance and enforcement action by States and Territories,” the review said.
Trevor Evans, the assistant minister for waste reduction and environmental management, told the Guardian this lack of enforcement was why he was reviewing the measures.
In the National Plastics Plan, released last week, the government said it would “consider regulatory action” if the industry phase-outs didn’t happen.
Evans says the EPS used by consumers is “especially problematic” because it ends up either in landfill or in the environment.
He says he is “incredibly optimistic” that the 2025 phase out of EPS will happen. An array of products is coming to market to replace polystyrene, he says, from waxed card and compostable substitutes to plastics that are much easier to recycle.
What are the alternatives?
Despite the problems with compliance, businesses have been getting on with the job of replacing polystyrene packaging since the packaging targets were announced in 2018, Apco says.
Ryan Swenson, head of sustainable development at Officeworks, says expanded polystyrene was a cheap packaging option for a long time, but customers found it hard to recycle and were worried about its environmental impacts.
The polystyrene used in the company’s own-brand printers and furniture has now been replaced by moulded cardboard.
Swenson says: “It just took some collaboration with supply chain partners and a level of education. Some products are more complex than others, but we’re seeing a lot of progress in international brands.”
Joanne Howarth is the founder of Planet Protector Packaging, a Sydney company that is trying to replace polystyrene with waste wool from sheep in Australia and New Zealand.
Howarth used to work for a company selling meal kits that used 35,000 polystyrene boxes every week. Ingredients would arrive in polystyrene boxes and then get distributed to the public in more polystyrene boxes.
“I used to have a forklift roster just to move the polystyrene boxes,” she says.
“I can’t tell you how much pushback we got from customers. They had no way to dispose of those boxes. There was a desperate need to get an alternative because polystyrene has dominated this space for 60 years.”
Her new company, founded in 2016, has 35 staff and is processing 20 tonnes of waste wool a week from Australian and New Zealand sheep, with the processing done in New Zealand.
“When sheep are sheared there are offcuts, like from the underbelly, that’s no good for the textile industry, so it was going to landfill. Farmers weren’t getting paid for the waste wool either.”
The waste wool is encased in a recyclable plastic or compostable sleeve to line boxes and is used to cushion and insulate food and medical supplies.
“Wool is a remarkable fibre and the best insulator on the planet. It keeps sheep warm in winter and cool in the summer.”
Instead of being saddled with polystyrene that they don’t know what to do with, she says, her customers reuse the wool insulation to put in their shopping bags, hanging baskets, pet bedding and home compost.