'Step in': Pressure on retailers to clean up their act

Major supermarkets and multinational brands are under pressure to reduce packaging waste, with growing calls for the government to step in.

Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson's frustrations boiled over while grilling senior officials about voluntary targets under an industry scheme.

"What gives you any confidence they are going to solve this problem when they literally haven't given a s*** about it for decades?" he asked environment department executives.

He was referring to targets entrusted to the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, whose members include thousands of businesses from packaging manufacturers and major retailers to international brands.

Environment department senior executive Kate Lynch agreed some of the "ambitious" targets would not be met.

"But having the targets in place is still a useful exercise," she told a Senate hearing on Thursday night.

The Greens senator asked when Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek would decide it was time to "step in and regulate".

He also questioned how Australia could back a legally binding international treaty on plastic pollution, while doing nothing like that at home.

"Don't you see an irony in that?"

Assistant Climate Change Minister Jenny McAllister said the government did not think the progress to date had been adequate.

But she said two things were going on.

"Our intention to be a good international citizen, and play our part in driving international action. But it's also our intention to work hard on our national environment, to get our house in order."

The minister said there was broad agreement between the federal and state governments to pursue stewardship arrangements for plastics.

She said Ms Plibersek was "thinking about regulatory arrangements" within that context.

Work was also progressing to boost the nation's recycling capacity, one of the factors behind the collapse of the REDcycle soft plastics recycling scheme.

Senator McAllister said the collapse was extremely disappointing and it was right for Coles and Woolworths to deal with the mountains of waste.

It also emerged the department knew two weeks before the public that REDcycle was stockpiling plastic.

The department became aware of concerns about REDcycle's stockpiles when it met with the company and other industry figures in October.

That was two weeks before the scheme's suspension on November 9.

The department provided advice to the minister at the time, but it was not made public.

The private company behind REDcycle has been placed in liquidation.