Environment Protection Amendment Bill 2019 Second Reading

13 Aug 2019

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I rise to speak on the Environment Protection Amendment Bill 2019, which is a bill to ban certain single-use plastic bags here in Victoria. This is a bill that the Greens strongly support. In fact it is something that my Greens colleagues and I have been pushing for a long time as we fight to get plastics out of our rivers and oceans. In fact I am told that 17 years ago Bob Brown actually introduced a bill into the federal Parliament to help reduce plastic bags in our community. And it was two years ago that former Greens MP Nina Springle introduced a bill in the Victorian Parliament to ban plastic bags, which we campaigned extensively for.

Of the many campaigns that we did run in the last term that was far and away one of the most popular campaigns, including in the Prahran electorate, my electorate, where we held a ‘ban the bag’ forum where we heard from speakers from the Port Phillip EcoCentre about just why this was so important. Even more recently when I did my electorate-wide survey, as many members do in their own electorates, stopping plastic pollution and fixing the waste crisis was one of the top priorities for my constituents. Why is this such an important reform? We have heard each speaker refer to the voluminous statistics about plastics out there in the oceans, and I think we need a few more just to kick this along. We know that the Yarra River is being clogged with plastic waste that is being carried by stormwater.

Three clean-up blitzes, involving 320 volunteers, over the past year have removed 20 tonnes of waste from the river. As any volunteer will tell you, whether it is on the Yarra River, whether it is beach patrol on our beaches, whether it is volunteers on Clean Up Australia Day, they are finding some plastic out there in our rivers, in our parks and on our streets. What we know as well is that the Yarra River is one of the biggest sources of rubbish going into Port Phillip Bay. In fact in June last year a 2.4-metre pygmy sperm whale which was pregnant washed up in distress on the beach in Williamstown and was later found to have a stomach full of plastic. Across Australia, and in fact across the globe, Australians use and throw away an estimated 4 billion lightweight plastic bags per year—that is 10 million bags per day. We have got the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which stretches from the east coast of Japan to the west coast of America—ocean currents cause rubbish, mainly plastic, to concentrate there. Plastic is having a devastating effect on the Great Barrier Reef. It is estimated that there are 5.25 trillion plastic particles floating in the sea and 90 per cent of all seabirds have got plastic in their guts.

Half of all sea turtles are being harmed by plastic waste. By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. Every day 250 marine animals and 2700 seabirds are choking to death on plastic pollution in our oceans. These are incredibly distressing facts, and I am so glad that there is so much more consciousness of these facts out there in the community. That is, I think, what is driving a lot of the change and is certainly driving a lot of the community support behind this bill. What has been happening in response to this? Well, here in Victoria we are introducing this bill, but we are behind the rest of Australia and behind the rest of the world. Besides New South Wales, Victoria is the only state or territory not to have implemented a ban. We have got South Australia, Tasmania—and I know the Greens, when they were in a coalition government there, certainly pushed that in their time in office and got that through—the Northern Territory and the ACT that have imposed bans on single-use plastic bags. South Australia’s plastic bag ban has been in place since 2009 and within just six months of that ban 200 million bags were prevented from entering landfill.

More than 50 countries and states have adopted the ban on the production and sale of plastic bags, so around the world India, China, Mexico, Bangladesh, Brazil, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana and Rwanda as well as a number of states in the USA have banned the bags. Just a shout‑out to Bangladesh—the member for Warrandyte interjected when the member for Euroa was speaking and referenced Bangladesh, joking that we should or should not take our environmental advice from Bangladesh, but just to point out, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries and a low-lying country that is heavily reliant on its waterways and very susceptible to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change, so perhaps we should be taking some of our environmental cues from the country of Bangladesh. We have also seen responses from local government and local councils. Local councils right here in Victoria have passed a number of motions in support of banning the plastic bag and have even taken action on their own events and their own facilities in terms of banning not just plastic bags but other plastics as well—straws, cutlery and those sorts of things.

Then we have retailers. We have had the big retailers but we have also had, for example, the Prahran Market and the South Melbourne Market banning single-use plastic bags. The retailers Coles and Woolworths have prevented an estimated 1.5 million bags ending up in our environment. Apparently within three months there has been an 80 per cent drop in the consumption of plastic bags nationwide, according to the National Retail Association. Of course shoppers themselves had been leading the charge in this before retailers or governments acted. I know shoppers still forget their bags and have to do the walk of shame, but I think more and more people are remembering their bags. They get the frustration sometimes of getting the order from a Coles or Woolworth’s delivery coming in plastic bags, but I think those sorts of gaps are what this bill is going to address. When the Greens introduced our bill in the previous Parliament it was subsequently voted down by the government and the opposition, but in fact my understanding is that the day before it was due to be debated we had an announcement from the government, during the Northcote by-election, that the bag would be banned, which we welcomed.

It starts on 1 November this year and bans retailers from giving out plastic supermarket bags—those ones with the handles and 35 micrometres thick or less. I think we do need to look at the thicker bags and just see how it is implemented. I certainly do not think this is set and forget. There are also some exemptions in terms of fresh produce and whatnot, so I certainly think that once, hopefully, this bill passes, we do need to keep watching just how it is implemented. Plastic bin liners and small, clear plastic bags used for fresh fruit and vegetables and animal waste will be exempt from this ban. There are offences for providing false information about banned bags and there are also some technical amendments within this bill to the Environment Protection Amendment Act 2018, which is yet to come into force. What it means is that we will not see these single-use plastic bags flowing out into the sea and our oceans anymore and certainly not going into landfill where they can sit for hundreds of years after just a few minutes of use.

But there is more to do—there is more to do that has been occurring across the world and in fact in our local councils that are taking action in terms of reducing plastic waste. We have got drink and food containers, microfibres, balloons, plastic straws, cutlery, coffee cups, plastic cling wrap and a range of plastic packaging. One of the things that often comes up with constituents is all of this plastic packaging that you get when you buy stuff—that needs to be addressed. So this bill, as others have mentioned, is a step—it is one step—but there is so much more to do, particularly as we are in the middle of a waste crisis, a waste crisis that this government saw coming. They saw it coming. We have got tonnes of recycling ending up in landfill or in dangerous stockpiles across the city. The government is still sitting on this now almost $400 million in its Sustainability Fund to address this crisis.

We simply just do not understand why the government is not moving more quickly on this. We had the minister being asked a pretty straightforward question by the member for Brunswick about why she is not implementing a container deposit scheme, and I tell you what, the answer did not fill one with great confidence that this crisis is going to be addressed rapidly. So, yes, we have got a step now with the plastic bag ban to come in on 1 November. We now need more plastics to be addressed by further legislation. A container deposit scheme needs to be implemented. Victoria is now the only state or territory not to have a container deposit scheme or not to have promised one. On our costings coming through from the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) it would cost just $9 million to implement and would generate revenue from unclaimed deposits of around $244 million, and of course that would go straight back into the waste and recycling systems.

We have got kerbside recycling for food and organic waste. This is one of my favourites. It comes up a lot in the Prahran electorate. So many people living in apartments do not want to put their food into the waste stream. Of course this is the most polluting form of waste when it ends up in landfill, producing greenhouse gases, and it does need a statewide response. Some councils can make it work from a financial perspective, but other councils, particularly in the inner city where there are apartments and the like, just cannot make it work. That is why we need a statewide approach to food and organic kerbside recycling. We need to invest in infrastructure and create that circular economy. From our costings, again from the PBO, it would cost just $50 million to create a plastic recycling plant, and that would take around half of Victoria’s plastic recycling and of course generate revenue as well. The minister was talking a lot about how we need to create a market for these recycled products, which we do, so get on with it; you need to be starting mandatory procurement targets, and you can start with your government agencies. There are so many.

Whether it is in infrastructure or whether it is in food, there is so much that can be done in terms of creating this industry. Finally, I will end with this: it certainly is not through a waste-to-energy plant, something that would take up around about half of all landfill—a polluting waste-to-energy plant that is not in line with how we need to be doing recycling and reducing waste in Victoria. I want to congratulate all the organisations and people who in any which way have signed up to support and join the campaign to ban the bag. This is very much your victory. It is a step in the right direction, but there is so much more to do.

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