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Research Paper 14, 2023

Research Paper 14, 2023

​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Single-use plastic product bans in Australia

​​​Single-use plastic product bans in Australia - cover image
Open PDF (2.1 MB)​​
Research P​aper 14, 2023
Cristy Gelling, BSc​ (Hons), MA, PhD
Research Analyst, Parliamentary Research Service​
Between 1950 and 20​17, around 9 billion tonnes of plastic were produced—more than a tonne for every person alive today. Globally, one of the most common policy responses to increasing plastic pollution has been to ban a small number of single-use ​plastic (​SUP) consumer products. In NSW, a number of ​​such bans, including on lightweight bags, straws and cutlery, were introduced by the Plastic Reduction and Circular Economy Act 2021 under the 2021 NS​W Plastics Action Plan. Further bans were proposed by the NSW Government in October 2023, including on takeaw​ay cups, plastic cigarette filters and heavyweight plastic bags. This paper examines the role of SUP bans in addressing plastic pollution, outlines current debates on how to replace banned SUP products and compares SUP bans in international and Australian jurisdictions.
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​​​​​​Key P​o​ints​​​​​​

​Single​-​use plastic (SUP) bans target a small number of problematic and unnecessary products, often​ with the aim of redu​cing plastic l​itter.

​​Although not likely ​​to reduce overall demand for plastic, SUP​ b​a​​ns can complement other policies by reducing the impact of partic​ularly litte​r-prone plastic products, such as takeaway tableware. Some ​bans are also designed to support recycling systems by reducing contamination with incompatible​ products.

Single-use plastic is littered more than other types of plastic. 
​Source: NSW EPA 2021

​The impact of SUP bans depends on which products and processes replace the banned SUP. Some of these alternatives have their own environmental challenges.

The ultimate environmental outcome of SUP restrictions depends on the products or practices that replace the banned goods, such as alternative plastic types or product reuse systems. Depending on the context, some substitutions may have even worse environmental outcomes than the banned product or may have undesirable social, economic or health impacts. Stakeholders disagree on which alternatives should be encouraged.

SUP bans are one of the most common plastic pollution policies worldwide. A small number of governments are regulating to favour reusable SUP alternatives rather than disposable ones. 

Restrictions on SUP carrier bags, including both bans and taxes, are widespread internationally. In the past few years, SUP bans are increasingly extending to items beyond bags, such as expanded polystyrene (EPS) takeaway containers, SUP straws and SUP cutlery. In some countries, governments have designed SUP restrictions and other legislative measures to encourage the replacement of SUP with reusable products. For example, France has banned the use of disposable tableware in fast food restaurants, regardless of material. 

45 of 50 countries in the OECD Plastics Policy Inventory have bans or taxes on SUP bags and 31 on SUP other than bags.

Source: OECD 2022

Australian governments and industry are phasing out certain problematic and unnecessary SUPs, but SUP regulations are inconsistent between jurisdictions.  ​

Between 2009 and 2022, all Australian states and territories introduced bans on lightweight SUP bags. Since 2020, states and territories have been introducing bans on other types of SUP items. However, there is little consistency in which items are banned and how banned items are defined, for example, in whether compostable plastic alternatives are covered. All jurisdictions have agreed to work on national harmonisation of SUP phase outs. 

​​These state and territory legislative bans have been implemented in parallel with an industry program under the Australian Packaging Covenant that aims to phase out problematic and unnecessary SUP packaging. Due to insufficient progress on the industry phase outs, the Australian Government intends to regulate certain SUP products under product stewardship legislation. 

Read more in the research paper: Single-use plastic product bans in Australia (PDF)​​​