Senate debates

Thursday, 13 September 2012


Environment Protection (Beverage Container Deposit and Recovery Scheme) Bill 2010; Second Reading

10:55 am

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

Having seen the schoolkids up in the gallery who are of a very similar age to my kids in Tassie, it occurred to me that there is a contrast between taking action on cleaning up rubbish and what we are doing here in parliament today with the Environment Protection (Beverage Container Deposit and Recovery Scheme) Bill 2010. I want to mention a program that my two children are involved in, particularly my 13-year-old daughter at Riverside High School—a nationwide program called Expedition Class. It is funded partly by the Bookend Trust in Tasmania and they have a program called Coastwatchers. A very fine gentleman, Andrew Hughes, is on his bike cycling around the country, visiting schools and taking schoolkids to clean up beaches. They make sculptures out of marine debris—sculptures of sea animals that are impacted by marine debris—and then they do projects about how these marine animals are being impacted by beverage containers, which were the key part of the marine debris I mentioned yesterday in the public interest debate.

The point I am trying to make is that there are people in this country—including the Surfrider Foundation, whom I have worked with for years; the Tangaroa Blue Foundation, and other organisations—that are taking action on reducing rubbish. We have Keep Australia Beautiful and other organisations, but the connection with the marine environment is one that has not been made yet. I think our parliament needs to take action. What has pleased me today listening to the debate is that all parties in this chamber believe in reducing waste in the environment. However, it is obvious that a container deposit scheme has been discussed nationally for over 20 years. In fact, it has been discussed internationally in lots of different countries and at international conventions. Policy instruments to try to remove debris from our waterways, landscapes and landfill include things such as recycling.

A container deposit scheme is a market based instrument that relies on a price incentive. It uses markets; it is not in itself seen to be a regulatory instrument. It provides an incentive for people to change their behaviour and there is a reward in place for people to pick up trash—cash for containers. Cash for cans is an Australian icon as old as Vegemite. It has been around for a long time. Most of us in this chamber grew up with something like that—whether it was for milk bottles or for other containers. We know from the survey work done by the Boomerang Alliance that most Australians agree with the concept. It was fantastic to hear Senator Xenophon talking with such pride about how clean his state is. Unfortunately we cannot say that about the whole country. Our bill here today is designed to put in place a national scheme. That is not taking away from the fact that there is a state and a territory that already have a container deposit scheme. However, as was mentioned by Senator Xenophon and will be covered by my colleague Senator Ludlam, we have concerns about an industry administered scheme. This bill is for a government administered scheme, and there are a lot of advantages to that. We also believe that the process underway at COAG, while positive, is just more talk. We have heard senators in the chamber talking about that process today, but that is what it is—it is talk. It is not action and it is not leadership. We have the potential today to put in place a scheme where parliament nationally can show leadership on this issue. I reiterate: parliament can take action.

A market based scheme has worked well in other areas when we deal with pollution, and that is essentially what this is. We are talking about rubbish—cans and plastic bottles—but rubbish is pollution. It is a by-product or part of production and consumption. As I mentioned yesterday in the public interest debate, a container deposit scheme is unique in terms of its policy prescriptions because it puts an emphasis on the consumer as well as on the producer to take some action. The scheme has often been criticised by the industry as not their responsibility in terms of this rubbish that is thrown out the door. If you throw a plastic bottle or a can out the window when you are driving you get fined for that; there is a penalty in place for that. But we know that up to half of the beverage containers in this country do not make their way into home recycling—which has benefits and is admirable—but find their way into waterways and ultimately into the ocean and other areas over time and then they photodegrade. So we need a scheme that incentivises people to do the right thing and that works well in terms of its funding. We have various scenarios on what this would cost. We are convinced that this is a neat solution to a dirty problem. We are also convinced that it will be a popular solution.

I mentioned yesterday that recent work by the CSIRO on the marine debris database has shown that between a third and a half of all plastics found in Australia are beverage containers. The database is growing. This is a very new area of focus for the scientific community. However, the problem with damaging marine animals and the research that has been done on that has been around for years. I would like to stress that our use of plastics grows exponentially every day. For 40 years the world has wanted to get rid of plastics in the oceans but has not been able to; in fact, the problem continues to get worse. I would like to see not just a national container deposit scheme, I would like to see an international container deposit scheme. When I think about walking on the beach with my kids, I wonder how else we can solve this problem. A lot of plastic that is washed up on our beaches does come from China and other countries. The plastics that we find in the south-west of Tasmania in the World Heritage areas wash up from all around the world. If we are going to get rid of this problem or tackle it effectively we need a policy prescription that can be rolled out right around the globe.

If it makes sense to put a container deposit scheme in place, why hasn't it happened? What is it that is holding this back? The answer to that is industry. Industry is in talks. Industry does not want to see a national container deposit scheme. Which industry? The Grocery Council covers a large number of beverage companies and packaging companies, and they are a very powerful lobby group. If we had agreement from the big companies like Coca-Cola that this was an effective solution to the problem then we would get some action. This is why it has been held up so long, this is why we have been talking about the problem for 20 years, this is why we are doing more talking in COAG: industry does not want to see a national container deposit scheme.

I firmly believe that businesses and companies should be part of the solution and that it will be to their benefit to be part of the solution. I would encourage a positive attitude and action towards working with industry to get recognition that a container deposit scheme is an effective way of tackling this problem. It is not the only way; it is just one tool in the chest. There are lots of other things we need to do to encourage more recycling and to encourage participation by consumers in acknowledging issues with single use plastics and packaging. We need to invest in biodegradable plastic products, which are starting to become more commonplace now but are too expensive because of economies of scale. We do need to consider other regulatory measures on things such as plastic bags. We are all familiar with this. As I said, we have been talking about it for years. I would encourage all senators in this chamber and everyone who reads Hansard to do what the school kids are doing: take some action to help clean up this problem. You can do that by supporting our container deposit bill today.


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