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Waste and Resource Recovery Amendment (Single Use Plastics) Bill 2022

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Tags: Plastic, Legislation

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Speaker, plastic pollution is harmful in many ways. We all understand that pretty comprehensively these days. It is well understood throughout the community how damaging plastic can be to marine life. We have all seen the images of birds or fish being choked by plastics. They are unforgettable. At this point, I commend the groundbreaking research of Dr Jennifer Lavers from the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies who has comprehensively documented and graphically illustrated through her photographs and her painstaking collection of microplastics in the bodies of birds just how damaging our use of single use plastics and all plastics can be to our marine life. We have seen how plastics can end up in the stomachs of albatrosses, seals, and other beautiful creatures around the Tasmanian marine environment. Even massive whales can starve to death because their intestines get choked with plastic debris.

These are the relatively obvious impacts of plastic pollution when it enters the marine environment - of the damage it can do - but there is less obvious harm that is being caused by plastics that is of direct concern to human wellbeing. That is from microplastics; the degrading of plastics in the environment through ultraviolet radiation and the rubbing moving along the sediment floor and on sand, the wind and erosion.

Plastics can break down into microparticles that can contaminate the environment, yes, but they also pollute the water sources and our food supplies. A study was published in 2018 that showed 90 per cent of the salt brands on the market that they sampled around the world contained microplastics. It is not just salt. We also know that seafood, rice, honey, beer, drinking water supplies and many other products that we consume have all been found to be contaminated by plastic at concerning levels to human health.

Scientists at the University of Newcastle believe the average person consumes 5 grams of plastic a week. They say that that is a conservative figure. It is no wonder that studies then are documenting that plastic particles are now commonly present in human blood, in organs, and in breastmilk; such a deeply concerning idea for women who are breastfeeding - the idea of passing on the unknown impact onto humans' genetic material and in the development of the organs of babies onto a next generation through plastics that we are inadvertently consuming, often just by breathing the air.

Plastic pollution is also a significant part of the contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions and climate heating that is occurring. We need fossil fuels to create plastics. Plastics were the brainchild of the fossil fuel industry, of the chemical industry, at the end of the Second World War, which had geared up to provide a whole range of chemicals for use in munitions and other equipment during that war. At the end of that period, they had nowhere to go with their product and essentially created the plastics industry that we have today. It was birthed after the Second World War.

What has happened is that we have increasingly become dependent on this useful, flexible, diverse, light, strong product which has become part of our social web. We could not imagine doing business, going to the shops, putting clothes on or living in any current form that human societies are living in. Every human society now has a dependence on plastic in some form or another.

We see the impacts in the vast production of plastics that are also contributing to climate change. We not only use fossil fuels as the raw materials but we also emit emissions through transporting them to plastic factories. The refining process of plastic itself admits hundreds of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the global atmosphere a year.

This is clearly a problem. It is socially, widely recognised as one. It is something that the vast majority of Tasmanians, Australians, people around the world want to do something about. When we see plastic litter on our rivers and in our beaches and streets, we feel bad. People do not like seeing it; not just because it is litter but because it reminds us that we have a problem with plastic and we are not doing enough about it.

I want to recognise the amazing work of local community groups. Despite the focus changing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people have continued to look outside themselves and to look at the impacts that we all have on the surrounding environment and to want to do their bit. We have seen community groups around Tasmania working to raise the issue of plastic pollution; their concerns about single plastic pollution and their determination to educate us and find a way of doing things differently.

We have in Tasmania plastic free Launceston. The coordinator is Trish Hausler. Lauren and Oberon Carter are famous to many Tasmanians for their strong attempts to show people, through their lifestyle, how we can live a zero waste lifestyle. Their group, Zero Waste Tasmania, now has 12 000 members. The Seadragons Dive Group, which spent last Sunday cleaning up rubbish at George Town, collected 280 kilograms of plastic. There is also our longstanding Plasticwise Taroona and Sustainable Living Tasmania. These are some of the Tasmanian bodies that have developed through community members standing up and wanting to do something, do the little bit that they can to push back the tide of plastic that is overwhelming us.

At the organised larger level, we have had bodies like Boomerang Alliance, the Australian Marine Conservation Society and World Wildlife Foundation that have for decades been trying to educate and promote and push for legislation for a circular economy for waste reuse, reduction, recycling and to end the use of avoidable plastics, like single use plastics.

What we see with plastic pollution is only the tip of the iceberg. The estimates are that more than one third of all plastic waste ends up as pollution. We cannot imagine living without plastics but we can change how we use them. We do not need to live without plastics. We need to change how we use plastics. We need, especially, to use them less or not use them at all in the first place and to recycle them. The most important thing we can do is to look at the ones that are particularly pointless, avoidable and harmful. That is why the focus is on single use plastics.

They are in the particularly harmful group because they are usually not recycled. When we buy a single-use plastic item, we typically only use it for a couple of minutes. A couple of minutes in our life, but a lifetime of plastic that is not biodegradable, not compostable and will live forever in some form to pollute another generation and the one after that. The impact that our use for a few minutes has on the climate, on ecosystems, on the wildlife that depends on those, and on our own health, is long lasting.

This is disturbing and grim news, but rarely is there a problem with such an obvious solution. The best news about single-use plastics is that through the relentless efforts of conservation groups working with industries and pushing governments, there is a range of excellent alternatives available. More are being developed all the time. It is no longer necessary for us to use these products. The damage caused by single-use plastics and the relative ease of moving away from them has meant that scores of jurisdictions around the world have already banned or are committed to preventing the use of single-use plastics.

In Australia, seven out of eight states and territories have banned or have committed to ban single-use plastics. Tasmania is the national laggard. I have heard the minister say he is preparing legislation. I am sure he will say it again today. We are tired of waiting to catch up to the rest of the nation. We are tired of waiting for the Liberals to take action on this. Action has been taken on this for a long time. The Greens on Hobart City Council, Bill Harvey and Helen Burnet, made the council the first place in Australia to ban single-use plastics, in March 2020. Since then, the world has not ended. Businesses have not stopped. Indeed, businesses have continued to provide products to people and people are using products that are compostable instead of plastic.

The majority of Tasmanians are appalled when they see mounting plastic pollution. People do not want birds and marine life dying avoidable deaths. They do not want to leave plastics for future generations that we can avoid using today.

This week, Environment ministers have met and talked about developing a national harmonised standard to guide the states' individual single-use plastic legislations. I understand this harmonisation would provide a minimum standard of national consistency. It is not a maximum standard, a race to the bottom, but a minimum standard that states would be encouraged to proscribe additional items on top of. Our Environment minister, Mr Jaensch, would have been the odd one out in that discussion around the table this week because Tasmania has not even made the first step of a legislated commitment. That is a pretty shameful place for Tasmania to be in, given that we have a stated clean, green brand.

That is why we brought on our bill today to ban single-use plastics. The bill goes some way towards Tasmania catching up with the other states that have either introduced or committed to introducing bans before the end of this year. It is based substantially on the ACT jurisdiction's legislation and it is conservative in the initial list of items that are proscribed as banned.

The bill aims to reduce plastic pollution by reducing the number of single-use plastic items that are either used or sold and that are littered or disposed of in landfill. It bans a straightforward set of single-use plastic items in the first stage. It would ban straws, stirrers, bowls, plates and cutlery. The initial list adopted in the bill is what all other states have moved on. It is a minimal list. Other states have moved far ahead of this list. All of the banned products in the bill can be avoided or have a reusable or non-plastic compostable alternative currently available.

The road testing with local businesses for these products to be commercially available to them has already been done and shown by the Hobart City Council. There would be a one-year period before this ban came into place, recognising that a large number of businesses in Tasmania have already made this switch. It would be the responsibility of the Government to work, as the Hobart City Council did, with businesses over the next year to help them to come on board.

The bill introduces a framework for how additional single-use plastic items can be added to the list of declared banned items. The bill has a robust process for including those additional items through regulation. It would require the minister to undertake public consultation for any item that was added. It would enable a consideration by the minister of the costs and of alternative product options available to businesses.

The bill provides an important process for necessary exemptions. This is important. We have been contacted by people, for example, in the disability and health care communities to seek their understanding and clarification that this would not penalise people with a disability or people in the health care settings who need to use single-use plastics. It does not. The bill makes very sure that people and communities with a valid reason for using single-use plastics would be allowed to continue to do so. Those specified include health care settings, schools and anything to do with the sale of plastic items for use by people with a disability.

These bans are a first step. Through this legislation Tasmania would move from being at the end of the pack to coming up some way with the minimum level of proscribed banned single-use items that other states have already adopted. We support national harmonisation of minimum standards for banning single-use plastic items. Tasmania needs to consider adding a range of other items to a list of banned single-use items. Other states have gone down this path to include coffee cups and lids, heavyweight plastic bags, cotton bud stems, the plastic packaging of fruit and vegetables and polystyrene fruit and drink containers and the release of helium balloons and balloon sticks. These are not things that we have dreamt up. They have all been committed to by most other states.

In the process of supporting a bill like this, we expect the Government to provide incentives for the reuse of foodware for suppliers and consumers and also for events, so they can shift their practices. MONA has been a fantastic advocate for this and has normalised the use of reusable foodware and drinkware. At a MONA event you buy a MONA mug and take it around with you. You can pay extra and get it back at the end or if you do not get back you get to keep it. There are many ways for people to replace a single-use plastic item with one which is not a throw away item. In our view, the Government should provide retailers and takeaway food outlets with incentives to provide reusable containers and opportunities for people to bring their own containers in appropriate situations.

Senator Peter Whish-Wilson has been at the forefront of the Greens at the federal level in campaigning to end plastic waste and has been a key person pushing for Australia to make some substantial changes to bring us into the circular economy that other countries are moving into. The European Union has been at the forefront of a lot of circular economy, but it has to be more than a conversation because it obviously has complexities. We have recently seen stories of businesses that have been supported to recycle plastic but have ended up falling over. There was one in Tasmania, Envorinex, to which that has happened now, which is devastating to hear.

What it says in part is where we can, the first step should be not to use it in the first place. Let us do what we can to not use avoidable single-use plastic that we only use for a few minutes. It is something we can all work on together. People really want to see the Government helping them in the work they are doing to use less plastics. It is not a big shift and something which the Hobart City Council has shown we can easily do. All other states are doing it.

I expect that there is a will from the minister to support this legislation. I will be disappointed if the minister does not feel he can support the legislation because there is no reason to put it off any longer. We have been waiting such a long time and it is time we caught up with the rest of the country and did something good for our children, the marine environment and the birds that really do not want to pick up that piece of plastic and think it is a bit of food and end up not being able to live because of an avoidable lifestyle decision that humans have made that we can do something about.