Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Statements by Senators

Marine Plastics

1:08 pm

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

Around three years ago, I did my first senator's statement on a burning issue that I care most deeply about—the threat of plastic pollution to our world's oceans and marine wildlife. I have campaigned on this issue for years and coming into the Senate I could not think of a bigger global pollution issue that we all face, but one that we talk so little about, know so little about and take almost no action to fix. I am pleased to report that three years later the issue is now starting to get some international attention, some traction, so to speak, but there is so much more we have to do and can do.

Only last week, the World Economic Forum released a report The new plastic economy: rethinking the future of plastics. This report produced some stark and stunning research. It estimated that there is approximately 150 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean today. If we continue with a business-as-usual scenario—that is, around eight million tonnes of plastic going into the ocean every year—then in 2025 the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic to every three tonnes of fish. And by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish—that is right, by weight, in just over 30 years time the ocean will contain more plastic than fish.

Microplastics, plastic which breaks down into small pieces, is already found throughout our marine food chain—plastic in plankton, plastic in the stomachs of fish and other marine life. Given some plastic binds with dangerous toxic substances in the ocean, this also spells danger to human health, not just to our marine life. This fact was also recognised in the World Economic Forum report. What is most encouraging in this groundbreaking report is the recognition that the plastic pollution crisis we face is not just an environmental problem; rather it is also an economic one, an economic problem we can tackle at a governmental, individual and business level. This report was a global call to arms for all governments to tackle this problem head-on.

Plastic production has surged over the past 50 years—15 million tonnes per annum was produced in 1964 and in 2014 it was 311 million tonnes, and this is expected to double again in the next 20 years. Plastic packaging, most of which is single-use plastic—that is, plastic that is only used once—represents 26 per cent of the total volume of plastics used. Ninety five per cent of this plastic packaging material, estimated to be worth between $80 billion and $120 billion annually, is lost to the economy after its immediate use—in other words, it becomes rubbish. Only 14 per cent of all plastic produced globally is collected for recycling and only five per cent of that 14 per cent actually makes its way into a secondary or new product. What happens to the rest? It goes to landfill or to what is called 'leakage'—in other words, litter.

The negative externality created by this litter—that is, the damage it does to the environment and to community especially in the ocean—is estimated to cost $40 billion annually and this will grow with plastic production and future leakage. In other words, the 20th century's greatest invention is now one of the 21st century's biggest environmental and economic challenges.

Government leadership will be central to meeting this challenge. Redesigning packaging so it never becomes waste—rather, it re-enters the economy as a valuable technical or biological input—is the World Economic Forum's stated vision; in other words, create an effective after-use plastic economy. This will require investment and innovation that radically changes the economics, quality and uptake of recycling, a significant scale-up in the adoption of reusable packaging and industrially compostable plastic packaging for targeted applications. Additional measures will also be required to drastically reduce the leakage of plastics into natural systems such as the ocean.

What about Australia's role in cleaning up this global scourge? Marine debris is officially recognised in this country as a 'threatening process' under our EPBC laws. A threat abatement plan was put in place in May 2009. A statutory review of the success of this plan was due five years later in May 2014. However, this review was not completed until 28 June last year. What this review does is check what actions were carried out against the objectives described in the original plan. The review showed that we are not making anywhere near enough progress in addressing this problem locally. What we are now waiting for is direction from environment minister Greg Hunt about when he will be publishing a new draft plan for the public to comment on.

Australia cannot isolate itself from this global problem. We ourselves are impacting our oceans. Australia needs to find local solutions to the scourge of marine plastics and to work with others—to show leadership like we did a decade ago in tackling climate change—to find better solutions for our region and the planet.

I am proud to say that Tasmania has shown leadership with a plastic bag ban, and we are seeing Queensland and New South Wales take tentative steps towards a container deposit scheme, a scheme that has been so successful in South Australia in reducing litter, especially plastic bottles. Incidentally, plastic bottles make up two-thirds of all plastic pollution found on the shores of Australia, according to a CSIRO report, so it is significant.

I want the Senate inquiry, which, I am very pleased to say, kicks off in a couple of weeks in Sydney, to put on the table all the evidence about marine plastics. I want to hear from Australian and global experts on this biggest of problems and where we can start to clean up our act. I want some clear recommendations about what we can do here and what leadership roles we can play globally.

Our oceans are under significant stress from climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing and now marine plastics. The ocean is turning into a plastic soup and we all risk choking on it. Given that the ocean is the womb of the earth, we need to do so much more to protect against choking this life source. I am very much looking forward to working with passionate stakeholders who agree with me on this through the Senate inquiry process.

We have had submissions from environment groups of all scales, local through to national and international. These include the Total Environment Centre, National Toxics Network, Clean Up Australia, Surfrider Foundation, which I used to be part of, Humane Society International, EDOs around the country, OceanWatch, Birdlife Australia, Australian Seabird Rescue Inc and the Boomerang Alliance, who do a fantastic job. We have heard from passionate experts like Emma Johnston from the University of New South Wales and Ian Hutton from Lord Howe Island. Local, state and federal government agencies have also had their say. There are now 190 submissions online. I thank everyone for the effort they have gone to to make those contributions. Hearings will kick off on 18 February in Sydney, and hopefully we will continue this process. This is a historic inquiry. As far as we know, it will be the first to bring together all the evidence and to hear from all the stakeholders about this critical issue. It is not before its time. This is the sort of consultation we hope the environment minister, Greg Hunt, will be doing to develop his threat abatement plan. I hope the Senate process can make a positive contribution towards that process.

I will finish with a reminder of the amazing Australian wildlife that has been officially recorded as being impacted by the scourge of marine debris. Starting with turtles: green turtles, olive ridley turtles, loggerhead turtles, flatback turtles, the critically endangered hawksbill turtle and the gigantic leatherback turtle are all heavily impacted by large marine plastic debris. With whales it is the humpback, the endangered southern right whale and Bryde's whale that are affected. All the dolphins are affected too, as are dugongs, Australian fur seals, New Zealand fur seals, Australian sea lions and even leopard and elephant seals.

Our seabird life has been affected the worst, including pelicans and penguins and several types of albatross. The stomachs of mutton birds and terns have been found overloaded with pieces of plastics. In fact, 100 per cent of mutton birds that have been dissected have had stomachs full of plastic. We know from statistics in the Pacific that hundreds of thousands of seabirds such as the albatross die every year from the ingestion of marine plastics. We know that fish and other species are not immune to microplastics.

In conclusion, we need a comprehensive national strategy to deal with the scourge of marine plastics. This Senate inquiry is critical in the process of developing this strategy and I am proud that I and the Australian Greens have instigated this important inquiry.