Proposal to ban more single-use plastics leaves ACT businesses, charities searching for viable, safe alternatives

Takeaway food orders could soon come packaged differently in Canberra with plastic containers part of the next stage of the ACT government’s plan to phase out single-use plastics.

Under the proposed changes, single-use plastic plates and bowls, heavyweight plastic bags and microbeads in cosmetic and cleaning products would also be banned in the territory from July next year.

As the government seeks community consultation on the additional bans, some Canberra businesses and charities are already investigating alternatives — and raising some concerns in the process.

‘I’ve not found an alternative yet’ 

Man wearing a black jacket standing in a restaurant.
Sanjay Kumar wants the government to ensure it gives businesses enough time to transition to plastic alternatives. (ABC News)

Restaurateur Sanjay Kumar has been trialling biodegradable alternatives for the take-away arm of his Indian restaurant in the southern suburb of Curtin, with mixed success.

“There were a few products which did not meet our criteria in terms of travelling a distance, but there are a few alternatives that have come up in the market that we’re keen to give a go,” he said.

Mr Kumar says the transition away from single-use plastic could cost up to four times more per container, and he uses up to 300 containers each week.

“It’s a great initiative, I think it will do a lot of good for the overall environment, but at the same time businesses have to bear the costs and manage the supply issues.”

Woman wearing a blue jacket with glasses on top of her head.
Ms Stig says Ken Behrens Helping Hands will have to stop supplying hot takeaway meals if a reliable plastic alternative can’t be found.  (ABC News)

Helen Stig from food charity Ken Behrens Helping Hands says she has so far been unable to source a reliable alternative that doesn’t carry any health risks.

“I’d be greatly concerned if we’re moving toward an alternative like cardboard where you can’t seal it, so you’re looking at the liability of people getting burned, food becoming contaminated because they don’t seal,” she said.

“Glass containers [can be sealed], but you’ve got that breakage issue, where I would be very concerned about delivering it or if it was dropped, then the food becomes contaminated with glass.

“I’ve not found an alternative yet that I would be happy to put out meals that had to be delivered to people in.”

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, Ms Stig says the charity delivered hundreds of meals, including purees for babies and people requiring tube feeding. 

“When you’re doing a puree, the thought of putting it in a container that may break, or may contaminate, is not something we’d be able to do at all,” she said. 

Potential health hazards and risks

Cardboard takeaway containers on a bench.
Dr Mathieson says more research needs to be done into the products used to line cardboard takeaway containers. (Unsplash)

Public health and food safety expert Andrew Mathieson from the Australian National University echoes concerns about the safety of plastic alternatives.

Cardboard containers need to be lined in order to hold liquid without absorbing it, and the two most commonly used liners are plastic and wax. 

Dr Mathieson says while most waxes are classed as edible, there are “other chemicals” that can be used as a coating that have not been well researched and could be potential hazards.

“We’re taking away [plastic] that’s been very well researched over 20, 30, 50 years and you’re introducing a new area of technology,” he said.

“That’s going to take time for us to actually work out what the hazards are.”

Dr Mathieson says reusable containers brought from home could contain bacteria if they aren’t cleaned properly. (FotografiaBasica )

Dr Mathieson says bring-your-own-container schemes also pose potential health hazards that can put businesses at risk 

He says if a container is not sufficiently cleaned it could lead to bacteria contaminating the food and the seller facing the blame if someone gets food poisoning.

While reusable containers aren’t a new concept, Dr Mathieson says in the past businesses were responsible for sanitisation.

“If you go back to the old days when we had recycled milk bottles, there’s always concern of the milk bottle company to get the bottles really clean,” he said.

“They spent a lot of money testing and ensuring that the bottles were clean and sterilised before being refilled with milk.

“People bringing their own containers just don’t do that.”

Businesses need support, ‘not tokenistic gestures’

Plastic bags, plastic takeaway containers and plastic plates.
Heavyweight plastic bags, single-use plastic plates and takeaway containers would be phased out under the next stage of the ACT’s proposed ban. (Supplied: ACT government)

As the government considers community feedback on its proposal, Mr Mathieson says it also needs to consider how it’s going to support food service businesses through the transition. 

“New packaging is a lot more expensive than existing technologies. Who is going to cover that cost?” he said. 

“We’re in a time of austerity, we don’t need tokenistic grand gestures, we need well thought-out policies to help businesses.”

He says during the consultation period the government should also make public any research it’s done into best practices for implementing plastic alternatives.

“I’d like to see the data, how much research the government has done,” he said.

“A lot of this stuff has been tried in other countries in the past, and some of it works really well when there’s an infrastructure and a support mechanism behind it.

“Let’s make sure that research is public so that other people can look at it as well before decisions have been made.”

Ms Stig also wants the government to investigate recyclable plastic options before it makes any final decisions.

“They really need to look at an alternate plastic that is sealable to be safe and also that is environmentally friendly,” she said.

As without a viable, safe alternative to plastic takeaway containers, Ms Stig says Ken Behrens Helping Hands “would have to stop sending hot meals to people’s houses.”

Written submissions on the ACT government’s proposal can be made until December 8. 

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