Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 September 2019


Product Stewardship Amendment (Packaging and Plastics) Bill 2019; Second Reading

3:39 pm

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

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum relating to the bill.

Leave granted.

I table the explanatory memorandum and seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

In essence, this Bill does two things: it makes the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation's 2025 National Packaging Targets mandatory; and it emulates the European Union's directive that bans and otherwise restricts the most problematic of single-use plastics.

In doing so, the Bill responds to the twin crises that are a result of our current approach to packaging and plastics: a recycling industry that is in disarray; and a torrent of plastic waste that is choking our oceans.

These crises have arisen because the environmental harm caused by end-of-life plastic and packaging is external to the market. Production and consumption is largely disconnected from disposal. Retail is about selling products, not what happens afterwards.

This Bill tackles these market failures head-on by establishing a mandatory product stewardship scheme that will require manufacturers, importers and distributors of consumer packaging and certain single-use plastics to deal with the problem.

This Bill will force industry to act.

For too long, people have been sold false promises. Industry spent twenty years talking of 'corporate social responsibility' and running ad campaigns while at the same time supermarkets put more and more plastic packaging onto their shelves.

Governments have been equally culpable. At all levels, they conceded to industry and stopped concentrating on the quality of the system. And the recycling industry became a house of cards.

Right now we need decisive action. We need decisive action to deal with the actual problem. And we need decisive action to restore the trust. The goodwill of millions of Australians who want to help is being seriously challenged by the failure of government and industry.

This Bill is the least this Parliament should be doing to keep faith with our constituents and to keep pace with the rest of the world.

National Packaging Targets

The 2025 National Packaging Targets were developed by the industry-led Australian Packaging Covenant with input from environment groups. They were announced in September 2018, and received the endorsement of the Australian Government.

The 2025 National Packaging Targets are:

- 100% of all packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

- 70% of plastic packaging will be recycled or composted by 2025.

- 30% average recycled content in all packaging by 2025.

- Problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging will be phased out.

This is all well and good, and sets a good foundation for Australia to make real progress in tackling the twin crises of recycling and marine plastic pollution. But the concern the Australian Greens have is that it might just be another empty promise.

As they stand, the packaging targets are a non-binding commitment made by some of the packaging industry. They do not capture the entire market and they are not compulsory. If they are not met, no one has to answer for it.

The concerns the Australian Greens have are based on the track record of the Packaging Covenant. As the Department of Environment and Energy's website states:

The Australian Packaging Covenant has been the principal national instrument to reduce the environmental impacts of consumer packaging in Australia since 1999.

In other words, the mess we've got ourselves into has happened on the Packaging Covenant's watch. Twenty years of a voluntary coregulatory approach has given us a recycling industry that is on its knees and oceans that are choking on plastic.

In particular, the Packaging Covenant's track record in addressing plastic packaging is woeful. The rate of recycling of plastic packaging has been stuck at around 30%, while the consumption of plastic packaging has been growing exponentially.

Recycling rates for other packaging materials have also flat-lined in recent years. The exception is the recycling rate for glass which has actually started to decline.

What's more, these figures are based on data collected before China's National Sword policy took effect in early 2018. The latest results are likely to be even less flattering.

All of this is despite the Packaging Covenant having developed a commitment paper in 2005 on the Sustainable Manufacture, Use and Recovery of Packaging. This included the aims of increasing the amount of packaging recycled and not increasing the amount of packaging disposed of to landfill.

The charitable view is that the Packaging Covenant has done its best in the face of government inertia. The uncharitable view—and more accurate view—is that the Packaging Covenant has provided greenwashing for an industry that has resisted meaningful government action to tackle the problem.

In particular, the Packaging Covenant has spent the better part of the last twenty years fighting tooth and nail against container deposit schemes, despite the evidence that they work. South Australia has continuously led the country in recycling rates, and better quality recycling at that—Adelaide doesn't have a problem with glass stockpiles. It's no accident that, until recently, South Australia was the only state with a container deposit scheme.

That the Packaging Covenant has resisted change is logical, because the Packaging Covenant is the packaging industry: Visy, Amcor, Coca-Cola Amatil, Lion, Coles, Woolworths and most of the other big players. These corporations earn money making and selling packaging and packaged products.

If they've seen the light, then all credit to them. And if they're serious, then they should support the 2025 National Packaging Targets being included in a mandatory product stewardship scheme.

A mandatory product stewardship scheme will ensure the integrity of the targets and ensure that the aims of the Packaging Covenant translate into meaningful action that is of benefit to the recycling industry and that improves the health of our oceans.

A mandatory product stewardship scheme will also ensure that the entire industry—manufacturers, importers and distributors—are all required to participate. This will address the problem of free riders who might be happy to let others do the heavy lifting.

Single-use plastics

Marine plastic pollution is one of the big environmental problems of the 21st century. An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic makes its way into the world's oceans every year. Plastic packaging is a particularly significant contributor to this problem, with around 30% of it escaping collection systems, and much of it making its way through stormwater systems into the sea. On current trends there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

The impact of plastic pollution on the marine environment is horrendous. Dolphins, seals, turtles and other large marine animals are killed and maimed when they become entangled in plastic waste. Birds die after ingesting chunks of plastic. Albatrosses have been discovered with whole toothbrushes in their stomachs.

Once into our oceans, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming tiny microplastic particles. As a result, plastic pollution has made its way into every corner of the globe. 90% of all marine birds and fish are thought to have plastic particles in their stomachs. Plastic has been found on the beaches of the most remote islands in the world and in creatures that live in the deep-sea trenches of the Pacific Ocean. Microplastics have been found in a majority of the world's drinking water, and have even been found in rain falling on the Rocky Mountains in Canada and the Pyrenees in France.

This is a problem that is global in scale. But it is a problem that requires local action by every national government around the world.

This Bill emulates the approach taken by the European Union in the development of their directive for the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment.

The EU started by identifying those items that are the most problematic sources of marine plastic pollution. It did this by selecting those plastic products and packaging that were most prevalent on the beaches of Europe.

It then evaluated the nature of these products and packaging, their usefulness, the availability of alternatives, and the avenues for disposal. Having undertaken this extensive analysis, the EU then adopted a range of measures, including targets, prohibitions, design requirements, labelling requirements, and financial contributions.

This Bill emulates the following measures from the EU directive:

- A ban on the following single-use plastics: cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, sticks for balloons, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, and products made of oxo-degradable plastic.

- Consumption reduction targets for plastic food containers and beverage cups.

- Labelling requirements for plastic food containers and beverage cups; and cigarette filters, sanitary products, and wet wipes containing plastic.

- A container deposit scheme and a recycling target for beverage containers.

- The requirement for industry to cover the cost of disposal, clean-up and public awareness campaigns for food containers and beverage cups, beverage containers, packets and wrappers, wet wipes, balloons, and tobacco filters; and the costs of public awareness campaigns for sanitary products.

The European Parliament agreed to these measures by a majority of 560 to 35.

The Australian Parliament copying this approach would not be a radical step.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.