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The Australian city aiming to become 'plastic-free'

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One NSW community is on a mission to become the country's first to eliminate single-use plastics.

As China's ban on foreign waste increases the pressure on Australia's recycling industry, there is now a renewed focus on reducing rubbish - particularly plastic - in the first place.

Lined by beautiful beaches, the city of Wollongong (100 kilometres south of Sydney) is proving it may be possible to drastically cut the use of such materials. 

Wollongong resident and keen surfer Andrew Gray is spearheading the push to reduce 70 per cent of Wollongong's single-use plastics - such as straws, cutlery, carrier bags and coffee cups - by 2020. He hopes it can spur on the community to become Australia's first plastic-free city - at least when it comes to single-use products. 

Andrew Gray
Andrew Gray wants his local town to reduce their plastic use.
SBS News

"I'm a surfer so I see plastic probably more than a lot of people. I'm down at the beach picking up rubbish," he told SBS News. 

"It is really concerning ... there's so many cafes and businesses that use single-use plastics. If they're disposed of incorrectly or littered, it goes into our beautiful oceans.”

Plastic-free Wollongong hopes to rid the local beaches of this type of single-use plastic.
Plastic-Free Wollongong hopes to rid the local beaches of this type of single-use plastic.
SBS News

An alliance of community groups known as 'Plastic Free Wollongong' is targeting school groups and working with the local council to ensure there's no single-use plastic at events. Crucial to the project is convincing companies that switching to alternatives is easy and good for business.

"We want to go to businesses and show them ... there are easy alternatives," Mr Gray said. 

"It’s about creating platforms for those businesses who are willing to make the change to be promoted, and people should go to these businesses as preferred alternatives because they're making the extra effort to preserve our environment. They deserve your dollar."

First 'Ocean-Friendly' Aussie business

Just a short walk from one of the many beaches in Wollongong is the bustling Earth Walker cafe. It sells hundreds of takeaway coffees and meals each day, but you won't see any milk cartons or plastic straws or containers being used.

Earth Walker & Co General Store owners Ciara Kumar and Bianca Poscoliero.
Earth Walker & Co General Store owners Ciara Kumar and Bianca Poscoliero.
SBS World News

Cafe co-owner Ciara Kulmar says instead, they use metal or paper straws, sustainable takeaway containers and worked with their local milk supplier to cut down on waste.

"Within the first two days we said 'we can't have this amount of plastic', so we researched and Country Valley had these machines; put 5 litres [of waste] into a bag, so you have no rubbish, it comes into a ball, that's it, you recycle it."

They have become the first business in Australia to be given the 'Ocean Friendly' stamp of approval by not-for-profit organisation Surfrider. 

Wollongong's Earth Walker cafe has gone plastic-free.
Wollongong's Earth Walker cafe has gone plastic-free.
SBS News

Surfrider's Susie Crick is overseeing the accreditation process in Australia after the scheme was rolled out in Hawaii - where more than 150 restaurants and cafes passed the test. Ms Crick says customers seek out businesses that have the Ocean Friendly logo.

"That will assure the customer that the business doesn't give away plastic straws, don't give away plastic takeaway containers ... It just means that the business is really ethical and cares about the environment, not just profit."

Other businesses in Wollongong are already keen to apply for the accreditation and there are plans to roll it out nationally.

A model for a nation

A group of refugees are also contributing to the Plastic Free Wollongong pilot through Green Connect, a local waste company helping festivals reduce rubbish. Emmanuel Bakenga joined Green Connect in 2013 ago after spending seven years in a refugee camp in Uganda.

"Sometimes we are wowed to see the amount of food that's being wasted and the amount of rubbish as well that's being produced. Now our heart's desire is to see our nation get to a stage where we are reducing the amount of waste," he said. 

The project isn't just about eliminating plastic in Wollongong. As Jeff Angel from Boomerang Alliance (a network of Australian environmental groups) says, they're creating a model that can be rolled out across the country.

"This is not a one-off exercise, we want to mainstream it, not only in this community but across all of the communities of Australia," he said. 

"Everyone's concerned about plastic pollution, we're now proving the solutions, whether you have a business or a school, whether you run events, or whether it's your own individual consumption, the solutions are easy and we all need to support them."

Ban on foreign waste 

Up until this year, Australia sent an average of more than 600,000 tonnes of materials to China. But the Asian giant's ban on foreign waste means the domestic recycling industry must find new ways to deal with it.

Green Connect Operations Manager Jacqui Besgrove says the best solution is producing less waste.

“In the waste industry, we talk about 'turning off the tap'. We don't want to keep mopping the floor, we actually want to turn off the tap and stop those single-use plastic items,” Ms Besgrove said.  

"People need to understand how to reduce their waste. We're happy to come in and manage waste at an event but we'd much rather work with an event organiser who actively wants to reduce that single-use plastic load, reduce their environmental footprint."

There's pressure on the packaging industry to create more sustainable options too. Brooke Donnelly from the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation says innovative designs ensure the industry can get more out of material.

"Understanding how something lives and breathes and at what point it no longer has functionality. Then what becomes of it?" she said.

"Does it become recycled, is it reused, what kind of regenerative methodology is appropriate?" 

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