BILL: Single-use and other plastic products

Today, Mark outlined the Greens' position on this Government bill which will prohibit some single-use plastics and polystyrene products. Mark noted the modest list of items included under the bill and spoke of the Greens' forthcoming amendments to it which will primarily expand the list of items covered by the bill.  


Single-Use and Other Plastic Products (Waste Avoidance) Bill 

Two years ago, the Greens introduced a very similar bill into this place to that which the Government has now brought forward. The Government was not keen to progress the bill that I introduced because they were going to do their own, following community consultation. It took 18 months, but I am pleased that we now have a bill. This bill is by no means perfect. It is certainly a start, but I think we can make it better before it leaves this chamber.

When I introduced the Greens' bill two years ago, I reminded the Council that the impact of single-use plastics on the natural environment was an unfolding environmental disaster that had been upon us for a number of decades and it was getting worse year by year, and I have never had anyone tell me that I am wrong in relation to that. It is a massive global problem and it is getting worse year on year.

It is hard to go anywhere out into the environment without coming across plastic waste that has its origins in single-use items. Almost everywhere, you can find the lids from plastic coffee cups, straws, the little stirrers that you use to dissolve the sugar in your coffee, as well as plastic plates and cups and other plastic crockery and cutlery. It is all out there in the marine environment, on our beaches, by our rivers and in our parks and other natural places. The waste that ends up in the marine environment has attracted particular attention because even small children know that these plastic waste items end up inside turtles, birds, whales and other marine creatures. They are killing millions upon millions of creatures around the world every year.

That is the legacy of plastic products, the legacy of plastic packaging and, in particular, single-use plastic items, but there is a better way. There is no doubting the convenience of the throwaway society. There is no doubting that it is convenient not to have to wash something, but that convenience comes at a terrible price, and that price is largely being borne by our environment, our wildlife and, in particular, our marine wildlife.

You do not have to watch a David Attenborough documentary to know how ubiquitous plastic has become in the environment, because we have decades of statistics that have been kept by a range of government and private programs, such as the results of Clean Up Australia Day and other community clean-up events. We know that Clean Up Australia volunteers collect tons of waste from beaches, rivers, roadsides and other public places, and plastic makes up a large proportion of that waste. Estimates vary from a quarter to a third, depending on the jurisdiction. In some ways, in a place like South Australia, we do not have as many plastic drink bottles but we do have other plastic items. The results vary, but plastic is a considerable proportion of the waste that is collected by volunteers at Clean Up events.

We now know that these plastic items never completely break down. They get smaller, but they stay in the environment. If you eat fish, you are eating plastic. Plastic in the ocean is responsible for killing, directly, hundreds of thousands of turtles, birds, such as penguins, as well as dolphins, and we know it is a massive global problem. The idea of banning single-use plastics is not new. Certainly, in the Greens, it has been our policy for many years. My colleagues in other states, as I have, have introduced bills into their parliaments, and I am pleased now that the Government has a bill for us to consider as well.

I also said two years ago that these initiatives were gaining a lot of traction overseas, and I mentioned that my bill was largely based on European Union initiatives. The EU list of products to be banned is bigger than the modest list proposed in this bill. They have included things like cotton buds, where the sticks are plastic. They include plastic plates, bowls and cups as well as the low-hanging fruit that is already incorporated in this bill, such as drinking straws, drink stirrers and plastic cutlery.

A number of other jurisdictions are also looking at the harm that is caused by the mass release of balloons. Even balloons that are not mass released still often are accompanied by single-use plastic sticks and ties that end up in the waste stream. Mass balloon release is a particular problem that needs to be addressed. You have something that is beautiful for a few moments and causes pain for many years.

Two years ago I also walked members through all of the other jurisdictions that were moving on dealing with plastic waste. Since then the list has grown significantly, with new jurisdictions taking action every day. We also have action that is happening at the local area. Many councils are banning single-use plastics at events that are held in their council area. We also have event organisers, such as the organisers of WOMAD here in Adelaide, who insist that the food vendors do not use single-use plastics.

The event this year was an overwhelmingly compostable event. To make sure that people did the right thing, because most people do want to do the right thing, they have volunteers standing next to every group of rubbish bins, so people knew exactly what they should put where and make sure that the food waste and the food containers ended up in the compost bins. That is great, but it is not enough to wait for individual councils, individual organisations or even individual companies to take small initiatives to achieve what we know needs to be done. Of course they are to be congratulated, but overall it is not enough. We can and we must do more.

The Minister in the second reading explanation pointed out the range of consultation that had been undertaken. The bill that we have now been presented with is narrower in its scope than the range of issues that were flagged in the consultation. Certainly, one of the elephants in the room is takeaway coffee cups, many of which are plastic lined. We have a lot of issues around plastic bags, beyond just the supermarket bags that this parliament dealt with some time ago, and we have lots of issues around the containers used for takeaway food.

As the Minister said to parliament, she had no doubt that other members would have better suggestions and their constituents would have suggestions. In fact, when you look at the public consultation report, from memory 91 per cent of respondents thought there were other things that could be included. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong. I am working from memory on the results of that consultation.

The Government quite reasonably emphasised that consultation is necessary. We are talking about a major transformation of the way many businesses operate, so yes, the Government does need to consult with people who use these single-use plastic products or sell them or give them away as part of the services they provide.

There is obviously time needed for transition, but one of the debates I think we need to have is: how long is enough? I think it would be a very rare food seller that did not see the writing on the wall, that at some time they were not going to be able to use the plastic food packaging and the plastic straws and cutlery and other things they have been using. I think they must have known the writing was on the wall, but nevertheless, it will be important to give businesses some time to adjust.

I think this bill quite reasonably sets the framework. When we do get eventually into the committee stage, I think we will spend a fair bit of time talking about the detail. I have been negotiating over a period of many weeks in relation to appropriate amendments to this bill. I am still in discussions with the opposition.

I know that there are some items that we can add to the list that the Government is proposing be banned shortly, perhaps within six months, and those items that can be banned within, say, 18 months or two years. I am sure that we can do better than the very limited list.

For example, I find it beyond comprehension that the list of banned single-use plastic items includes the plastic knives and forks and spoons but does not include any of the plates, bowls or cups that accompany those utensils. It seems to me that they go together and it make sense that a time frame for their banning also be put in place. As I have said, one of the elephants in the room is the coffee cups. Australia has become a very coffee-oriented society. It is very rare to walk down the street and not see every third or fourth person with a coffee cup.

We know that for consumers it is difficult. Some of the cups are labelled as biodegradable. Many of them are just plain paper, which is biodegradable, but they are plastic lined. Others are labelled as being compostable. I think that even people who want to do the right thing are scratching their heads and struggling to know what to do. They can see that it is largely paper, so does that mean it can go into the yellow bin and be recycled with other paper products? Well, no, it has a plastic lining. You certainly do not want to put the compostable ones in with the recycling because they are going to degrade. I think there is a lot more work to be done.

I am looking forward to the committee stage of the debate, which I expect will be in the next sitting week. I would like to get this bill through certainly before the winter break because then we give businesses longer to adjust. As I have foreshadowed, my amendments will be looking primarily at the list of items, many of which have been consulted on. It is not as if they have all just come out of left field. As I have said, a vast number of people who commented on the Government's discussion paper recommended that these additional items be added. With those words, the Greens are pleased to be supporting the second reading of this bill.