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Speech: Single-Use and Other Plastic Products (Waste Avoidance) Bill 2020

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:53): I rise to support the bill and note that it has been two years since the Greens introduced, in this very place, a bill to ban single-use plastics. It is wonderful to see a significant moment in this parliament where a government introduces such a bill. After a lengthy consultation process, it has been hugely encouraging to see the government moving on a bill such as this. Green ideas into power is why the Greens are here.

It is by now a well-known fact that mind-boggling amounts of plastic rubbish make their way into the environment, leading to horrible pollution and the harming of wildlife and damaging everyone's health. Despite ever-improving awareness and campaigning, our ability to recycle or properly dispose of plastics remains poor. Globally, one-third of all plastic produced becomes plastic waste, which makes its way into our environment.

During the debate on this bill in the other place, and indeed here in this chamber, we have heard members extol the virtues of this modern material. Of course, no-one is trying to deny the value and usefulness of plastic as a material, nor its pervasiveness in our lives. Indeed, plastic and certainly single-use plastics have greatly improved hygiene standards, but we have created a material that is almost too good: it is cheap, versatile and lasts a long time.

As we have grown increasingly reliant on single-use plastics and in particular their convenience, we have seen the growing negative risks and impacts of our rampant consumption of these products. The WWF summed it up in their 2019 report, entitled Solving Plastic Pollution Through Accountability, where they stated:

Plastic is not inherently bad; it is a man-made invention that has generated significant benefits for society. Unfortunately, the way industries and governments have managed plastic, and the way society has converted it into a disposable and single-use convenience, has transformed this innovation into a planetary environmental disaster.

Since the year 2000, we have used more plastic than all of the years before. While the issue of plastic pollution has only been around for a few decades, 75 per cent of all plastic ever produced has already become waste. The average person uses 53 kilos of plastic a year, leading us to collectively create a total of more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste.

The production of plastic is increasingly cheap, versatile and reliable, supporting the development of disposable plastic products and practically ensuring that disposability is our global business model. Almost half of all plastic produced becomes waste in less than three years. Plastic packaging clogs up city sewer systems and chokes birds and marine life as it breaks down, looking like bits of food as it makes its way through waterways and into our wildlife, which starve while filling their bellies with deceptive plastic scraps.

As these products break down they leach toxic chemicals and, in the process of breaking down, which takes years and years and years, plastic products are worn into smaller and smaller particles. Microplastics are now making their way into the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, which will no doubt have serious health implications. The full effects of microplastics on the natural world and society are still unknown. Many knowledge gaps on the impacts of plastic pollution still exist, including the economic impact of land-based pollution and the effects of microplastic ingestion on humans and other animal species.

Carbon dioxide emissions are growing each year from increased production and incineration of waste plastic, and plastic production consumes 4 per cent of total oil and gas demand annually. In 2016, the most recent year for which that data is available, the production of plastic resulted in approximately two billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. We are now seeing research predicting that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by the year 2025, five years from now; that is horrifying.

About 40 per cent of plastics that we consume today are single use: items such as cutlery, plates, food containers and electronics packaging. While the legislation before us today only tackles a fraction of the various single-use plastic products that become waste at best and serious pollutants at worst, it is not hard to imagine the environmental benefits of seriously reducing our consumption of these products.

In their report on plastics, the WWF estimated that on a global level, if we were to phase out single-use plastics, we would lower plastic waste generation to 188 million metric tonnes, a 57 per cent reduction from the business as usual scenario we have now. We are far from the first jurisdiction seeking to do this. In fact, around 112 countries, states and cities around the world have already imposed bans on various single-use plastic goods, and the list of these restrictions continues to grow.

The East African Legislative Assembly has passed a bill to ban the manufacture, sale, import and use of certain plastic bags across its six member states, with a combined population of approximately 186 million people. In October 2018, the European Union parliament approved a ban on a number of single-use plastic items by the year 2021, along with the requirement to reduce plastic in food packaging by 25 per cent by 2025 and cut plastic content in cigarette filters 80 per cent by the year 2030.

The European Commission is phasing out plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws and drink stirrers in all of its member states, and single-use plastic bottles with detachable lids are also being banned. I note that we in this chamber, due to the COVID restrictions, currently use plastic bottles each and every day that we sit. Today, I have chosen not to do that, not just because we are debating this bill but certainly this bill is a timely reminder that we can and must do better.

This bill is a welcome and necessary first step itself, particularly with the amendments moved by my colleague the Hon. Mark Parnell, but we cannot just pass this legislation and think that we have done enough. In getting to this legislation, it seems that some products and issues have already been put in the too-hard basket for the time being. Even if we are satisfied with the types of single-use plastics that we are banning in this place today, there is still a lot more that we can and must do.

There need to be incentives for producers to create and use products that are not single-use. The cost, both the environmental cost and the economic cost, is not borne equally by those responsible for plastic pollution. While plastic is cheap to produce, UN estimates tell us that ocean plastic pollution alone costs US$8 billion each year as it impacts fisheries, tourism and maritime operators. Falling production costs have resulted in the accelerated production of virgin plastics and a continued low uptake of recycled materials. Plastic can be more expensive to recycle than it is worth because the true cost of production is not reflected in its price. Manufacturers need to be responsible for the cost of cleaning up the products that they design for us to throw away.

While we need to have better recycling practices and greater uptake in the use of recycled materials, it is not a silver bullet and it does come with limitations. If we continue to deal with and use plastics in the same way, many factors will make it hard to recycle plastic, from its physical characteristics to insufficient market demand for many types of recycled plastics. Then there are issues of contamination and products made of different types of materials that are difficult to separate. Takeaway coffee cups are the perfect example of this, as my honourable colleague, Mark Parnell, is fond of reminding me.

In particular, in that case, if they are recycled, they can only at most be recycled about 10 times before their fibres become too short to be reprocessed. Plastic converters and manufacturers of products made out of virgin plastic have limited responsibility for the downstream impacts of their actions, causing a prevalence of single-use plastic business models. Plastic products often have a complex blend of additional materials that reduce the cost of production. However, this also reduces the recycling potential of these mixed material products by introducing impurities and contaminants and increasing the sorting and cleaning costs.

We also see manufacturers who fail to design resource-efficient products that enable effective end-of-life plastic waste management. Due to choices made in the design and manufacturing processes, those creating the products experience significant benefits from a cheaper product but subsequently increase the cost of plastic waste management for those downstream in the product's life cycle. As the WWF states in that same report, 'Measures should be put in place to ensure the global price of plastic reflects its full life cycle cost to nature and society.'

This is not a far-fetched idea. I think it is the logical step from here. This is already happening in Europe, where there are some places where if companies do not design or enable products to be re-used or recycled they are penalised. A European Commission statement has outlined a shift in responsibility from consumers and onto producers for the entire lifespan of their products, from their production right through to the disposal.

As that quote states, producers will help cover the cost of waste management and clean-up as well as awareness-raising measures for food containers, packets and wrappers, drinks containers and cups, tobacco products with filters, wet wipes, balloons and lightweight plastic bags. The industry will also be given incentives to develop less polluting alternatives for these products. We need to look at the life cycle of products and move towards closed-loop systems. Otherwise, the future of our waste is looking grim. If we do not change our consumption, our plastic consumption is predicted to double by 2030, with dire environmental consequences.

The Greens welcome this bill. We look forward to its speedy passage, hopefully with the Greens' amendment of my honourable colleague included, but we cannot wash our hands of this issue once that is done. We need to move towards better accountability for those responsible for the negative consequences of the products that they produce.

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