In its 2014 Marine Debris report in Australia, the CSIRO wrote that ‘two thirds of the marine debris found along our coastline is plastic, most from local sources.’ Unless we significantly change our habits, the future for our environment is looking bleak as a best-case scenario. The EM Foundation/World Economic Forum Report predicts that by the year 2050 our oceans will contain more plastic than fish in weight (Davos, 2016), a disturbing fact to say the least.
Together with Wollongong City Council, the Boomerang Alliance has rolled out its ‘Plastic Free’ initiative, part of the Communities Taking Control programme. Wollongong is one of the first two cities in Australia to take on the challenge. Globally, 95% of all plastic packaging is used once and then discarded as litter. The goal of the plastic-free initiative is to reduce the use, and hence waste, of single-use plastic packaging to encourage conscious changes and help provide alternative solutions. They aim to involve multiple stakeholders, from individuals to businesses to the government. The message, says campaign leader Andy Gray, is simple: say no to single-use plastic.
“The six target items are plastic water bottles, plastic bags, polystyrene takeaway containers, plastic straws, plastic cutlery and coffee cups, which represent prolific and problematic litter items, but more importantly can all be avoided with the use of sustainable alternatives.”
The overarching goal of the campaign goal is to eliminate single-use plastic items to reduce the impact that plastic is having on our marine and natural environment.
“Plastic items are designed to be used once and disposed of with the potential to persist in the environment indefinitely. It’s an environmental nightmare, and such an outdated model of resource management that, no matter which side of the coin you look at, we need to rethink the way we use plastic in our everyday lives,” Andy explains.
Following the national target, the Boomerang Alliance has set the goal for Wollongong to achieve a 70% reduction in targeted single-use plastic items by 2020.
Acting Mayor, Councillor David Brown, says Wollongong Council is very much behind the campaign and believes that the campaign is feasible for Wollongong’s future.
“I think if you get to a certain point, community attitudes on these things flip. You see that with a lot of social issues, for example smoking. Ultimately behaviour is the thing they change.”
Wollongong City Council has adopted a lead by example approach to the campaign, involving themselves with the initiative from the get-go and becoming a key player in its success so far, along with other local NGO and community groups such as the University of Wollongong, Surfrider Foundation, Responsible Cafes and Green Connect. With the shared goal of eliminating litter and waste, Wollongong City Council have collaborated with the Boomerang Alliance on a number of promotional events for the campaign.
For the campaign to achieve its main goal, Andy states that three key pillars of initiative need to come into fruition: businesses becoming ‘plastic free champions’, the community taking ownership of the initiative and the institutionalisation of Plastic Free Wollongong initiatives.
For individuals, this means refusing single-use items and providing their own alternatives, such as canvas shopping bags or reusable coffee cups, and avoiding novelty items such as plastic straws or unnecessary packaging, supporting those businesses that do take action to reduce their usage of single-use plastic items and demanding change from businesses that are not changing their practices.
Businesses are encouraged to refuse supply of single-use plastics and to offer reusable or non-plastic alternatives, such as reusable cutlery and water refill stations. Whilst single-use plastic materials are cost-effective and easily accessible for businesses and larger corporations, they are sometimes viewed as a barrier to achieving sustainability goals. According to acting Mayor David Brown, businesses will adopt plastic-free practices as the benefits work both ways.
“A lot of businesses do have a social conscience. Ultimately, if people make their consumer choice around that then the corporates will follow. It could be a [monetary] cost to them, but sometimes I think they realise that being a good corporate citizen actually has its own rewards.”
Several businesses have already signed up to the ‘Responsible Cafes’ programme, offering discounted coffee for individuals who bring their own cup. Businesses that take significant action to address the six priority items will be promoted across social media as Plastic Free Champions.
“For a community initiative such as Plastic Free Wollongong it’s all about building a groundswell and addressing the issue from all angles. We want to empower individuals and make them realise that their behaviour and dollar goes a long way – if you refuse to give your business to a stakeholder who continues to use single-use plastic then you are disrupting the status quo and mobilising change,” Andy says.
With its attractive coast line and beach lifestyle, Wollongong is an appropriate champion for the Plastic Free campaign. However, when it comes to other towns that will eventually take the plunge, we need to turn our attention to reducing single-use plastics on a larger scale.
Councillor David Brown says we need a bigger buy-in from State government. “The local council doesn’t actually have much power when it comes to changing legislation,” he says in regard to other states, such as South Australia, who have banned the use of plastic bags at shops. “What we can do [on a local level] is educate people and set an example; as we say, we’re the closest level of government to the people. We can be lobbyists as well. If enough local governments are saying the same thing, it puts pressure on the state government.”
With single-use plastic so accessible and ingrained in our consumption habits, it’s going to take adaption to new materials to create change. Andy recommends reusable items as the best alternative to plastics, followed by non-plastic alternatives such as paper, wood and cardboard which will decompose naturally. While the production of alternatives such as green bags take their own toll on the environment, David calculates that their long-term use is often more than enough to make up for this.
The initiative launched in September and is still in its pilot phase; along with Noosa, the trial period will be ending in July next year. The Boomerang Alliance plans to produce a ‘Communities Taking Control’ guide that will act as a one-stop-shop for communities to start their own Plastic Free Initiatives.
For individuals passionate about the cause, Andy encourages involvement in one of Boomerang Alliance’s allied initiatives such as Take3, Responsible Runners/cafes, Tangaroa Blue or community clean-ups run by the Surfrider Foundation, information for which can be found on their website.
First and foremost, Andy stresses that the any individual can get involved, regardless of whether they live in Wollongong or not, simply by refusing single-use plastics and taking responsibility for their consumption habits.
“It’s not always easy but count your wins. Every time you avoid single-use plastic you are making a difference.”
Think of it as cleaning up our oceans, one ‘no’ at a time.