Plastic Reduction and Circular Economy Bill 2021
9th November 2021
Mr GREG PIPER: It is now more than 14 years since I first started speaking and asking questions in this Chamber about plastics and their impact on our natural environment and human health, and what I believe is one of the most significant environmental challenges of our time. From the outset, I express my support for the Plastic Reduction and Circular Economy Bill 2021. I also thank the Minister and the Government for finally getting serious about the plastics issue. It represents a significant step in the right direction. Having said that, I do not believe it goes anywhere near the magnitude of what is needed to turn around the damage already done and that continues to be done.
We are now both the source and the victim of our addiction to throwaway plastics. It is not just fish and marine life that are eating micro plastics; it is also us—microplastics are now in our own food chain. Sadly, we are a generation that has been living a convenient dream and creating a rotten legacy for future generations. There has been some good policy from this Government in recent years, including the Return and Earn recycling scheme, which is a major step forward and a very successful reform. Likewise, the Government's policy of approaching the plastics and waste issue in a more holistic way should be applauded. But we have had opportunities to address some of these issues in recent years and the Government has not supported them—the private member's bill introduced by the member for Shellharbour to ban single-use plastic bags comes to mind. The delays in getting to this point have not been ideal.
As the member for North Shore said in introducing the bill, more than eight million tonnes of plastic currently leak into the world's oceans every year. It is not just a local problem but a global one. If we do nothing locally, our local environment goes down with the sinking plastic ship. Even if we stopped using all plastics tomorrow—which we cannot—it will still take generations for some of those discarded plastics to break down and for the environment to be restored. In some cases, that will take thousands of years or will effectively see our plastic waste stay within the environment forever more. We know the impacts that these plastics are already having on our environment, in particular on our marine and aquatic life and birdlife. On current projections, by the middle of this century about 95 per cent of all seabirds will be found with plastic inside them.
Most of us are already eating fish that almost certainly contain some level of microplastics that they have ingested. We are killing birdlife, choking marine life and terrestrial reptiles, along with amphibians and mammals such as whales, with a simple plastic, throwaway shopping bag. Even more shameful is that we have known this has been happening for decades and we have done very little about it. We should not forget the microfibres that flow into our waterways every time we wash our clothe and the plastic microbeads that we wash off our faces from cosmetics, soaps and exfoliants. We already know those things, but I can walk out the front door of this place today and see tonnes more being carried around the city, which will eventually be added to the mountains of discarded plastic that are out of sight and out of mind.
Only around 10 per cent of the many billions of plastic items produced each year in New South Wales alone are recycled. Doubling or tripling that will not be enough. We need to aim even higher. When the Government released its discussion paper on redirecting the future of plastics in New South Wales last year, 98 per cent of the 16,000 submissions received from the community and stakeholders supported the phasing out of single-use plastics. More than 93 per cent agreed that businesses should be made to rein in the amount of plastic packaging they use, and that they should be held more accountable with mandatory recycling regimes or regulated downstream requirements on not just the products they are producing but also the packaging that comes with them. Surprise, surprise, those measures were introduced into many European countries in the 1970s and 1980s. We are only addressing them now in New South Wales.
Those figures make this reform a no-brainer. Everyone knows—or at least 98 per cent and 93 per cent in those cases I just mentioned know—that this reform is needed. Even industry groups know it is needed, and they want it. People want action. They want a sustainable future for themselves and their environment, and for the natural and aquatic environments. The bill delivers but, in my opinion, just not enough. I now turn to the detail of the bill. I and note that under the first stage of this reform lightweight plastic bags will be phased out within six months of the bill's assent while other single-use plastics such as plastic stirrers, cutlery, cotton buds and expanded polystyrene food service items will be phased out from 1 November next year.
They are all good, simple objectives but I would like to have seen far more items included in the initial phase-out. Why are we waiting another three years to phase out plastic bowls, plates and cups and non-compostable fruit stickers—of all things—and heavyweight plastic bags? We have the opportunity to do that right now but apparently not the will or sense of urgency. I appreciate that the Government is now making significant steps towards tackling this problem, but we need to be realistic. We need to understand that for every reform we do not add now, for every plastic we do not include now and for every delay that we add to the mix, the more wildlife will die, the more our oceans will be filled with discarded plastics and the more our health will be exposed to possible long-term impacts.
I will quickly address a number of other aspects of the bill. I applaud the effort to set design standards, which will take plastic microbeads out of many items including make-up and soaps. I acknowledge that many of the players in that industry are ahead of the game and have already been phasing out microbeads from their products, but it is nevertheless good to see the phase-out legislated. Similarly, I strongly support the bill's intentions to strengthen product stewardship requirements for businesses or brand owners, particularly around materials used to package their products. Plastic packaging is a major source of waste in New South Wales. It makes up about a third of all waste and very little is currently recycled. It should be noted that this reform makes sure that product manufacturers in New South Wales have to meet the same upstream benchmarks contained in the National Packaging Targets, which means that more businesses will be using more recycled materials in packaging and less packaging overall.
In the eight minutes I have been standing here, the equivalent of 10 truckloads of plastic have been dumped in oceans around the world. That is our problem as much as it is a global problem. We must act locally and, sadly, New South Wales has been slow off the blocks when it comes to reining in our addiction to single-use plastics, incentivised recycling schemes and sustainable waste strategies for industry. I acknowledge that we have had many champions in the community who have driven this initiative much more than this Government and every previous government. We have champions such as our former great environmentalist Ian Kiernan, who identified this issue and personally motivated so many people to get out there and take action in this space.
We also know our local champions in our local areas who are doing great things. In my area, Sam Cross of Plastic Police comes to mind. He is working with schools, councils and organisations and educating them on collecting plastics and re-using them. For every person who is educated, another five, 10 or 20 people can be educated and we can really make a change in this space. We also have some fantastic academics in this space. Dr Thava Palanisami at the University of Newcastle and his team are working particularly on microplastics. I acknowledge the member for Manly. I met Dr Palanisami at a microplastics initiative held at Manly. They are doing some fantastic things. On a global scale, we have some amazing young champions working in this space who are tackling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch off the United States. We need to do those things.
I also acknowledge the corporate champions. Companies such as Downer are doing some great things in finding re-use solutions for plastics and are working with local government and, in our case, the city council. We can do more and we must do more. I think environment Minister Matt Kean for introducing the bill. I acknowledge the Government for at least moving us forward with this much-needed reform. It is good reform, but we need to do more.
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