Role of the Australian Government in addressing marine plastic pollution
The responsibility for addressing marine debris is shared between the
Commonwealth, the states and territories. The Australian Government manages the
threat of marine plastic pollution in a variety of ways, including:
the protection of threatened species and ecosystems;
the implementation of the international convention on at-sea
disposal of rubbish; and
the development and implementation of national waste management
This chapter examines each of the mechanisms available to the Australian
Government, the need to ensure that policy is supported by rigorous scientific
research and the Australian Government's role in providing leadership in
addressing the threat of marine plastic across federal, and state and territory
jurisdictions as well as internationally.
Protection of threatened species and ecosystems
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
(EPBC Act) provides a framework for the management of threats to species
and ecosystems by providing for the listing of key threatening processes and
the development of threat abatement and recovery plans.
Key threatening processes are those that threaten the survival,
abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological
community. The key threatening process—Injury and fatality to vertebrate
marine life caused by ingestion of, or entanglement in, harmful marine debris—was
listed under the EPBC Act in 2003.
Once a threatening process is listed under the EPBC Act, a threat abatement
plan can be put into place if the Minister for the Environment decides that it
is 'a feasible, effective and efficient way' to abate the threatening process.
The Threat Abatement Plan for the impacts of marine debris on
vertebrate marine life (TAP) was developed in response to the key
threatening process listing, and released in May 2009. The plan aims to provide
a national, coordinated approach to the implementation of measures for
prevention and mitigation of the harmful impacts of marine debris.
To achieve this aim, the TAP provides a framework for implementing
measures with four key objectives:
contribute to the long-term prevention of the incidence of
harmful marine debris;
remove existing harmful marine debris from the marine environment;
monitor the quantities, origins and impacts of marine debris and
assess the effectiveness of management arrangements over time for the strategic
reduction in marine debris; and
mitigate the impacts of harmful marine debris on marine species
and ecological communities.
In order to achieve these four objectives, the TAP identifies six key
'approaches' for both the Commonwealth, and state and territory governments.
improving waste management practices on land and at sea;
raising public awareness and improving education campaigns about
the prevention of littering on land and at sea;
building and strengthening international collaboration;
developing a national approach to information collection and
improving the understanding of the origins of harmful marine
facilitating the implementation of wildlife research and recovery
For each approach a set of actions are listed which 'seek to build on existing
initiatives and strengthen coordination and partnerships to prevent, remove,
mitigate and monitor marine debris'.
The TAP lists species which are negatively affected by ingestion of, or
entanglement in, harmful marine debris. This list includes over 25 vulnerable
and endangered species of turtles, cetaceans, sharks, birds, dugongs and
The Minister for the Environment may make or adopt and implement
recovery plans for listed threatened and endangered species and ecological
communities. Recovery plans set out the research and management practices
required to prevent the decline of, and support the recovery of species.
A number of recovery plans related to the threat of marine plastic
pollution have been developed. These include the Recovery Plan for Marine
Turtles in Australia (2003), The Sub-Antarctic fur seal and
southern elephant seal recovery plan (2004–2009) and the National
Recovery Plan for threatened albatrosses and giant petrels.
Review of the Threat Abatement Plan
The EPBC Act requires a threat abatement plan to be reviewed by the
Minister at intervals of not longer than five years. The TAP was made in May 2009,
and reviewed in 2014.
The purpose of the five-year review is to assess the progress and
effectiveness of the TAP in preventing and mitigating the impacts of harmful
marine debris on vertebrate marine life. The review also compares the problem
of marine debris across Australia to when the TAP was initiated, and identifies
successes and failures of the plan in guiding and facilitating action. It
identifies threat abatement actions funded by the Australian Government as well
as work undertaken by state and territory governments, community and other
The 2014 TAP Review concluded that 'despite progress particularly in
cleanup efforts, it is not possible to state that these criteria have been met
during the life of the plan'. In particular:
...there had not been a general decline in the presence and
extent of harmful marine debris in Australia's marine environment, and there
had not been a general decline in the number of marine vertebrates dying and
being injured as a result of ingestion and/or entanglement in harmful marine
The TAP Review concluded that 'the key threatening process...has not been
abated and that the objectives of the threat abatement plan have not been met'.
As a result of the TAP Review, the Minister for the Environment, the Hon Greg Hunt
MP, decided to revise the plan.
Development of revised Threat
The revised TAP is currently in preparation and is expected to be
considered by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee in June 2016.
Following approval from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, the draft
will be released for a three-month public consultation period.
As part of the development of the revised TAP, the Department of the
Environment (the department) held a workshop seeking expert advice in
developing a revised TAP. This workshop included government agencies,
researchers, and community and industry groups. Key pieces of advice for
government generated through the workshop included:
preventing deliberately produced microplastics such as nurdles
and microbeads from entering the marine environment;
developing a better understanding of the threat posed by
directing resources to the identification and reduction of the
sources of marine debris in Australian waters such as ghost nets;
improving methods for the disposal of the large amounts of
plastic pollution found on remote Northern Australian beaches;
developing new technologies, such as waste-to-energy systems, for
the reduction of the volume of marine pollution; and
developing strategies in partnership with industry to identify
and reduce waste at the source.
The department acknowledged the level of concern around microplastic
pollution and its impact. It noted that when the original TAP was created,
microplastics were not included. However, as a result of the workshop, Mr Stephen
Oxley, First Assistant Secretary, Wildlife Trade and Biosecurity Branch, Department
of the Environment, commented that the new TAP will 'address the emerging
issues of microplastics and associated chemical contamination' as it has been
acknowledged that these 'are very important'.
Mr Oxley went on to comment that 'plastics will be a key theme in the threat
Criticism of the EPBC Act and the
Threat Abatement Plan
During the inquiry, the committee received evidence which pointed to concerns
with both the EPBC Act and the TAP to address the growing problem of marine
plastic pollution. These concerns grew out of the recognition of the complexity
and cross-jurisdictional issues of marine plastic pollution; the wide-spread
nature of the pollution; the physical attributes of plastics, particularly microplastics;
and the lack of action on the implementation of the approaches listed in the
EDOs of Australia, for example, commented that 'overall, the EPBC Act
alone is not sufficient to regulate marine plastics, as the main sources of
pollution originate with plastic production and disposal, which are chiefly
within the jurisdictions of state laws'.
Mr Nari Sahukar from EDOs of Australia, explained further that 'the EPBC Act
currently does not address those land-based sources of plastics pollution where
there appears to be this regulatory gap'. He went on to question whether this
was an issue that required amendment of the EPBC Act or the implementation of
improved coordination of state government efforts 'to amend their pollution
laws and look at how existing pollution law tools could be adapted to the new
threat of plastic'.
The National Environmental Law Association (NELA) also criticised the limited
scope and ability of the EPBC Act and the TAP to mitigate the threat from
marine plastic pollution. Dr Sarah Waddell, NELA, described the EPBC Act as 'a
limited framework for viewing marine plastic pollution' which does not address
the impact on non-vertebrate species, or species which are not listed as
threatened or endangered. Dr Waddell particularly highlighted that the
...marine plastic pollution goes way beyond just the impact on
listed species, because it is impacting on all species within the marine
environment, and the actual listing of the species itself is also a fairly limited
process. For example, as a trigger for the TAP we had 29 vertebrate species
that were listed, but we know from the submissions that have been made by the
scientists that marine plastic pollution is having an impact on far more than
29 specifically listed species.
This view was also supported by Dr Jennifer Lavers who expressed
frustration that unless a species is listed as threatened or endangered, the
TAP does not apply. Dr Lavers told the committee that:
One of the things that I find incredibly frustrating and
telling, I guess, about the threat abatement plan is that flesh-footed
shearwaters in Australia are like the iconic poster child of the impacts of
plastic pollution, yet they do not even get or render a single mention in the
threat abatement plan.
A further example of the limitation of the scope of the TAP was cited by
the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resource Management Board. In 2013,
a report on impacts and threat abatement of marine debris within the Gulf St
Vincent recommended that the TAP be updated as there was scientific evidence
suggesting that the compounding effects of marine debris impacts across all
trophic levels and ecological communities.
As well as being limited in scope, the lack of action taken under the
TAP was also criticised by some witnesses. Dr Waddell commented that the TAP 'provides
some good bones for addressing this problem, but in itself it is not sufficient'.
Further, 'the inadequacy of the implementation of that plan means that the
problem is not being sufficiently addressed'.
Mr Sahukar suggested that the lack of action to progress the TAP was
partly due to the TAP not being properly resourced or properly followed
through. However, he added that the limitations on what the EPBC Act requires
have contributed to the lack of progress under the TAP. Dr Sahukar noted that:
There is the listing process for key threatening processes
and there is the ability to make those threat abatement plans and to ensure
that they are in force and to report on their progress, but we do not really
have hard and fast commitments or requirements in the act to implement the
actions in those plans. Even if you did, you would need to address that
interface between state and federal assessments given that, as we have said, it
is at the state development assessment and pollution control level that a lot
of these smaller impacts are being created.
The lack of action with progress of the TAP produced a degree of
frustration with submitters. For example, Mr Jeff Angel from the Total
Environment Centre commented that there was no expectation that the TAP will
lead to substantial action, and he was particularly critical of the actions of
Clearly, they seem to be satisfied with having produced the
threat abatement plan as evidence of doing something, but the actions under
that plan were either not implemented or meaningless.
Ms Heidi Taylor, Tangaroa Blue Foundation, also expressed her
frustration that there is 'too much talking while marine debris and more garbage
keeps washing into the ocean' and that this includes 'discussions revolving
around the threat abatement plan'.
However, the Department of the Environment reminded the committee that
the TAP is a 'guide' rather than an 'implementation plan'. Mr Oxley explained that:
The plan identifies priorities for research and management,
and helps guide, at the national level, all the researchers and management
Lack of consultation
The committee sought evidence from witnesses as to whether the department
had consulted key academics and community organisations currently engaged in
research, clean-up activities, and marine fauna rescue and rehabilitation,
during the development of the revised TAP. The committee was concerned by the
apparent lack of engagement with some interested stakeholders. For example, the
Boomerang Alliance told the committee that 34 of 40 of its member organisations
were not consulted regarding the development of the TAP.
In addition, neither the Boomerang Alliance nor the Total Environment Centre
were consulted during the development of the revised TAP.
Similarly, Ms Kathrina Southwell from the Australian Seabird Rescue
which conducts marine fauna rescue and rehabilitation services, stated that she
was consulted during the development of the original TAP, but has not been
The lack of engagement with academics engaged in research on marine
plastic pollution was also of concern. Dr Frederieke Kroon, Principal Research
Scientist from AIMS, informed the committee that she was recently invited to
present her research findings to the department, but that she had not been
previously aware that the TAP was being revised. Dr Kroon told the
committee that she had initiated contact with the department 'to make sure that
the research that we are conducting will inform policies put in place'.
Similarly, Dr Mark Browne told the committee that although he is 'involved
with the threat abatement plan, but we have not really progressed beyond the
During the conduct of the inquiry, the committee received evidence from
local government representatives on their commitment to preventing the movement
of plastic pollution into the marine environment. This commitment includes
significant expenditure on infrastructure such as gross pollutant traps in
stormwater systems, and clean-up programs. The department indicated that the
Australian Local Government Association had been invited to participate in the
workshop, but did not do so. The Australian Local Government Association has
been involved in subsequent discussions with the department.
Need for research-based policy
As previously discussed, the committee heard from a range of witnesses
that there is a need to undertake research to better understand the sources and
effects of marine plastic pollution, particularly microplastics, on marine
fauna and ecosystems. In addition, it was stated that further research is
required to identify effective mitigation and prevention strategies to stop
plastic debris from entering the marine environment. However, it was argued
that there is a lack of a coordinated approach to research, or sufficient
funding of research. The committee considers that, without the necessary
research, it is difficult to ensure that policy development is based on the
best available evidence.
The following discussion canvasses the research elements of the TAP and concerns
raised about the adequacy of the research of marine plastic pollution and its
The TAP states that the information and framework provided is intended
to promote collaboration between groups such as researchers, industry, coastal
managers, governments and polluters, and 'provide direction for research and
management to address the key threatening process'.
The department added that 'the plan identifies the priorities for research and
management, and helps guide, at the national level, all the researchers and
For example, Action 3.3 required:
DEWHA [Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the
Arts] to support research on the nature of degradation pathways of synthetic
debris in the marine environment (including biodegradable and oxodegradable
plastics), the extent that degradation products are contaminated by other potentially
toxic compounds, and the potential toxicity of debris types on marine species.
For example: DEWHA to support monitoring of the incidence of hatching failure
due to eggshell thinning (linked with the Recovery plan for albatrosses and
However, the TAP review found that the department has not supported
specific research on the nature of degradation pathways of synthetic debris in
the marine environment. The review added that, over the life of the TAP, a
better understanding of this issue has developed internationally.
Similarly, Action 2.3 which required the development of marine debris
monitoring sites, was found not to have been implemented.
In addition, no specific funding mechanism for research was contained in
the TAP. However, the department noted that researchers can use the priorities
set out in the TAP to apply for funding for research project under other
government programs and institutional schemes.
The committee was also provided with the list of five research projects into
marine debris funded by the department since the key threatening process was
listed under the EPBC Act in 2003. These are listed in Table 4.1 below.
Table 4.1: Research projects into marine debris funded by
the Department of the Environment since 2003
Marine Debris in the
Northern Australian Waters (WWF) – April 2005
Pilot investigation of the
origins and pathways of marine debris found in the northern Australian marine
Research on the impact of
marine debris on marine turtle survival and behaviour: North east Arnhem
Land, Northern Territory (Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation) – April 2009
Impacts of plastic debris
on Australian marine wildlife (C&R Consulting) – June 2009
Understanding the types,
sources and at-sea distribution of marine debris in Australian waters (CSIRO)
Source: Department of the
Environment, Answer to question on notice No. 2, 26 February 2016
In evidence, the committee received a range of views on the gaps in
research regarding marine plastic pollution with much evidence pointing to specific
research needs. However, a number of academics cautioned against funding
scientific research without rigorous assessment of its usefulness, and
integrity of its scientific method. Academics stated that government should
balance the need for further research to be undertaken with the need for urgent
action to reduce sources of marine plastic pollution.
The committee also heard evidence that the research that currently
exists may not assist policymakers in making informed decisions in relation to
the TAP. Dr Britta Denise Hardesty from the CSIRO told the committee that:
There are numerous issues and specifics where we could
provide real value to the government in terms of helping to inform some of
these things. The government really wants to know what the best bang for the
buck is. That is a really important and valid question. My role or job as a
scientist is to collect and provide that information, but I cannot just pull
something out of the sky.
Professor Tony Underwood told the committee that though there has been
considerable research conducted in the past ten years on the topic of marine
plastic pollution, there is little 'good research' available and that 'there is
not nearly enough that is helpful for coming to any decisions'.
Professor Underwood explained that one of the difficulties in utilising
scientific research in driving policy decisions is that studies are often
impossible to compare as they utilise different methodologies and have
Professor Underwood particularly encouraged policymakers to allocate funding
specifically to conducting research on policy proposals. Professor Underwood
stated that government 'should require some information about the effectiveness
of policy rather than just making it'.
However, Dr Hardesty challenged the assumption that there is a need for
more information before developing policy. Dr Hardesty stated:
With the ocean plastic pollution issue, as with many
environmental issues, I think that operating under the precautionary principle
is a reasonable principle to take. I do not think we want to wait until we know
unequivocally and, even as a scientist, I do not think we want to see say, 'We
need to wait and do more research,' and do more and more research.' We know a
lot. We know enough to be able to make good, informed recommendations and
management decisions. We know that we find fewer plastic bags on coastlines
during clean-ups when you move away from urban centres. We know that we find
fewer beverage containers when you are picking up litter—not just on the coastline
but around the states and territories—when you are in South Australia. We know
some of these things. We have good information.
The lack of funding for research into marine plastic pollution, and the
subsequent lack of understanding of its impacts was highlighted by a number of
witnesses. For example, Dr Lavers told the committee that:
Research and, particularly, conservation based research is
chronically underfunded...Our understanding of the complex issues, including
things like chemical pollution, is so incredibly poor. We really are just
starting at the basic level, and yet there is no funding for this research. How
do we begin to even grasp the complexities of the problem, never mind come up
with mitigation strategies for the problem, if there is no funding to even get
us off the ground? We need funding on par with things like climate change and
sea level rise, because that is the challenge that we are facing. It needs to
be put in that same tier.
Similarly, Dr Browne told the committee that:
If you are going to be making decisions based on proof of
harm and you are not developing research programs to adequately define harm,
then it is a pretty difficult situation.
A number of witnesses informed the committee that very little of the research
they conduct on marine plastic pollution is funded by the Australian
Government. For example, Dr Lavers told the committee that her research is
largely funded through philanthropy with some grants from not-for-profit
while Mr Ian Hutton explained that he funds his own research through his
private business and occasional small grants from the Lord Howe Island Board.
Professor Stephen Smith commented that the majority of his funding was provided
through New South Wales government agencies, and in-kind funding from the
Dr Browne explained that he recently received funding from the
Australian Research Council to examine the biomagnification of microplastics in
the food web. Funding of approximately $500,000 was received and Dr Browne
noted that this had only been granted after three previous applications were
made. Dr Browne told the committee that:
The previous times we were told it was not an important issue
and that therefore it would not be funded.
In addition, the committee notes that the Minister for the Environment, the
Hon Greg Hunt MP, announced on 29 February 2016 that $60,000 will be
committed to 'kick-start urgent research into the best way to reduce plastic
This funding will be provided under the National Environmental Science
Programme's (NESP) emerging priorities stream, and will investigate the key
sources of marine plastic, and the most cost-effective options for reduction.
The NESP Marine Biodiversty Hub will conduct this research in collaboration
with the Tropical Water Quality Hub, and other research partners.
Dr Lavers noted that the United States has had, for many years, a
targeted marine debris funding scheme so that researchers US-wide can apply
specifically for that funding round. As a consequence a significant amount of
research in marine debris is being undertaken by US researchers.
National marine debris database
In developing informed policy to mitigate the threat of marine plastic
pollution, it is crucial to understand the rates, and types of plastic pollution.
It is also important to identify the factors which influence rates of
pollution, and pollution pathways. Data collection has been carried out by a
variety of organisations, supported by government, industry and the non-government
sector. These include the Australian Marine Debris Initiative and a coastal
survey conducted by the CSIRO which were discussed during the course of the
inquiry. However, the committee received evidence that significant differences
exist in the methodologies utilised by these projects, and the subsequent
ability to compare data may be limited.
The Tangaroa Blue Foundation, a registered charity established in 2004 coordinates
the Australian Marine Debris Initiative (AMDI). The AMDI is a 'national network
of volunteers, communities, schools, Indigenous rangers, industry groups and
government agencies working on both removal and mitigation of marine debris
from marine, coastal and estuarine environments'. Ms Taylor explained that, to
date, more than 5.4 million marine debris items have been entered into the AMDI
database with the assistance of 902 partner organisations.
Ms Taylor stated that national consistency in recording data on marine
plastic pollution, and the ability to provide a more comprehensive overview of
the issue were the primary goals driving the development of the AMDI. Ms Taylor
told the committee that:
... there were a lot of community groups collecting very small
datasets, and we wanted them not only to be able to utilise a system where they
could get everything that they needed but also to be able to add that to the
bigger-picture stuff, which is things like CDL [container deposit legislation] discussions
and plastic bag bans, where you need stuff at a regional, state and national
level to be able to have those discussions.
Tangaroa Blue consults with government agencies and James Cook
University to develop and maintain the AMDI.
Since its inception, the AMDI has evolved to include items such as plastic fragments
and foam, which were not initially included. The AMDI currently contains 140
categories. The datasheet utilised by volunteers to record plastic debris only
includes the 10 most common categories, however additional information can still
be recorded and entered into the database.
One of the features of the AMDI is the timeframe of some of its
datasets: in Western Australia, the AMDI has maintained datasets since 2005, and
in the Port Douglas area in Far North Queensland, data has been collected since
2007–08. Ms Taylor explained that in these areas, stretches of coastline
are monitored monthly, however in more remote locations, monitoring occurs at
three monthly intervals, or annually. It was explained to the committee that in
addition to regular monitoring sites maintained by the Tangaroa Blue Foundation,
individuals may 'adopt' sections of coastline and enter data on an ad hoc basis
as they undertake clean-up activities.
The AMDI, as a nationally consistent database, allows for the
interrogation and comparison of data across sites. It also allows for the
identification of sources of marine plastic pollution.
This was noted by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) which
commented that it cooperates with the Tangaroa Blue Foundation to identify the
origins of materials found. AMSA described the Foundation as 'adept at
identifying the countries, at least where the [plastic] product was produced'.
AMSA added that:
Information collected by Tangaroa Blue in the Australian
Marine Debris Initiative database can also assist in the longer term
identification of trends and the overall efficacy of the MARPOL Annex V regulations.
This information can assist Australia in discussions in the international
context and assist in ensuring the effective implementation of MARPOL Annex V
both in Australian waters and in the region.
The committee noted that in addition to the AMDI, other data collection
programs have also been developed and implemented. The CSIRO submitted that it
'carried out a national coastal marine debris survey at sites approximately
every 100km along the Australian coastline'.
The CSIRO told the committee that it also:
...developed a public, online, national marine debris database.
Here, members of the public can contribute data they collect about local beach
litter, following our simple methodology that is freely available online.
The CSIRO not only examined pollution in coastal areas but:
...implemented a marine debris sampling program throughout
Australia's exclusive economic zone, with samples approximately every 80 nautical
miles surrounding the continent. This sampling program was implemented based on
a statistically robust design to control variation in sampling conditions, along
with local and regional heterogeneity. These data have been integrated with
other data from around the globe to form a coherent dataset covering all the
major oceans, comprised of more than 13,000 samples from multiple researchers.
Additional samples are being added to the database as they become available.
CSIRO developed a set of statistical tools to standardize the data and create
maps of debris densities at the regional, national, and international scale.
Dr Hardesty described the national marine debris survey as being
different from other clean-up activities in that it was:
...aiming at doing a rigorous, reputable survey method around
the entire continent. We were looking at material types. We did not look at
things the way they do on the clean-ups, such as how many bottle caps or lids.
We were looking at plastics and thin film-like plastics. We had some particular
categories such as cigarette butts and things like that. But typically it was
hard plastic and soft plastic and film-like plastic, and ropes and twines,
which also are plastic—and those sorts of categories.
While the AMDI and the CSIRO have provided significant insight into
marine debris, it was argued that a national database for marine pollution
monitoring reporting was required.
For example, the Australian Seabird Rescue told the committee that:
...it is really important to be able to keep gathering all of
that information and to continue doing that for years and years so that we have
that research in place to see where all of the rubbish is coming from and what
beaches it is washing up onto.
Similarly, Ms Leah Page, a post-graduate researcher at the University of
A national database for marine debris monitoring and
reporting would facilitate the involvement of the community; coordinate and
standardise data collection and processing; and thereby enable more powerful
interrogation of datasets. Consistent data collection and reporting would also
help Australia meet international reporting requirements and facilitate participation
in regional initiatives.
Ms Taylor acknowledged that, despite the need for a nationally
consistent marine debris database, the differing work aims of research
organisations should still be supported. In particular, databases need to be
suited to the work being undertaken. Ms Taylor told the committee that though
the CSIRO's debris survey differed from the AMDI, it was designed to examine
ingestion impacts rather than sources.
Similarly, Ms Page told the committee that while 'coordination has benefits' it
'should not come at the cost of disempowering existing networks'.
The need for coordination and cooperation was also acknowledged by the
CSIRO which submitted that during the course of the national marine debris
...also engaged with existing initiatives such as Clean Up
Australia, Tangaroa Blue and Surf Rider Foundation, as well as other remarkable
NGOs and state based organizations that are cleaning up Australia’s beaches.
Together, all of these organisations and citizen scientists contribute to the
improved understanding of the types, amounts and sources of debris that arrives
on Australia’s coastline.
The value of a national database has been recognised and the Tangaroa
Blue Foundation has received funding from the Australian Government to support
upgrades to the AMDI.
National waste policy
The department noted that waste management in Australia is primarily the
responsibility of states and territories, and the role of the Australian
Government has been, and is, to ensure that Australia meets its obligations to
a number of international agreements through measures implemented by the
Commonwealth or the states and territories.
Both the Commonwealth and state and territory governments have addressed
the issue of waste policy. For example, in 2009, Australia's environment
ministers released the National Waste Policy: Less waste, more resources which
set an agenda for a nationally coordinated approach to waste management and
resource recovery. Regular reporting occurs in order to measure resource
recovery, recycling and waste management in each jurisdiction.
Further, arising out of the Intergovernmental Agreement on the
Environment endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in May
1992, the National Environment Protection Council (NEPC) was established under
the National Environment Protection Council Act 1994 (Cth), and mirror
legislation was passed in state and territory jurisdictions. It has two primary
functions under these Acts—to make National Environment Protection Measures
(NEPMs), and to assess and report on the implementation and effectives of
NEPMs are a set of national objectives designed to assist in protecting
or managing particular aspects of the environment. In 1998, the NEPM was made
in relation to used packaging. In 2011, Ministers endorsed the National
Environment Protection (Used Packaging Materials) Measure 2011 which
incorporated previous iterations, and included the Australian Packaging
Covenant (APC). The APC is the third iteration of the previously named National
Packaging Covenant which had been a key instrument in managing the
environmental impacts of packaging since 1999.
The Used Packaging Materials NEPM is intended to reduce environmental
degradation resulting from the disposal of used packaging. It is also intended
to encourage the conservation of virgin materials through an increase in the
re-use and recycling of used packaging material. These outcomes are intended to
support and complement the voluntary strategies in the APC.
The APC is a sustainable packaging initiative which aims to change the
culture of business to encourage the use of more sustainable packaging,
increase recycling rates and reduce packaging litter.
It is an agreement between companies in the supply chain and government to
reduce the environmental impacts of consumer packaging.
The APC is considered to be the key national mechanism for the implementation
of Strategy 3 of the National Waste Policy—better management of packaging to
improve the use of resources, reduce the environmental impact of packaging
design, enhance away from home recycling and reduce litter.
The Commonwealth, state and territory governments, and the packaging
industry are currently negotiating new Covenant arrangements to be implemented
from 1 July 2016, including future funding arrangements. Under the current APC,
Commonwealth, state and territory funding is provided to support the Covenant.
However, under the new arrangements, no government funding will be mandated.
In relation to the TAP and the APC, the department informed the
committee that 'there is no reason why we would not in some way seek to
underline the significance or importance of the Packaging Covenant in the
threat abatement plan'.
The APC is discussed further in Chapter 7.
The need for national leadership
Submitters noted that in Australia, the states and territories have
primary responsibility for environmental laws—particularly in relation to waste
management and pollution. However, it was observed that marine plastic
pollution is not restricted by state boundaries so that it 'will clearly pass
from state waters to Commonwealth waters and, clearly, pass on currents to
As a consequence, it was argued that there is a need for a coordinated approach
across all jurisdictions to addressing marine plastic pollution. Nevertheless,
it was observed that this is not the case with Dr Waddell, NELA,
...there seems to be a lot of acknowledgement that the
coordination between the Commonwealth level and the state levels is not working
very well across the marine jurisdiction.
Dr Waddell went on to comment that there were options for the
Commonwealth to take a greater role in addressing pollution issues and stated
But in the past the Commonwealth has stepped away from
assuming that leadership role and has always sought to work within the
Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment and that NEPM system, which was
established back in 1994. Perhaps it is time we revisited that.
The call for the Commonwealth to take on a greater role and assume
leadership was repeated by other submitters. For example, the Sydney Coastal
Councils Group commented:
As the impacts of plastic are many and varied, solutions must
be equally diverse. A whole-of-government approach is required, that includes
industry and communities. Due to the scale of the problem, national leadership
Similarly, the Port Phillip EcoCentre stated:
The long-standing efforts of noble not-for-profit
organisations have not been able to keep pace with the consumption and poor
disposal of consumer plastics generated by the growing human population. As
marine plastics are not constrained by state or local government borders
Federal government leadership is required on this issue.
EDOs of Australia argued that 'there is a lack of national leadership on
the environment at the moment'.
Ms Walmsley, EDOs of Australia, commented further that the Commonwealth has
provided national leadership in other areas and should do so in relation to implementing
mechanisms to address marine plastic pollution:
That comes back to my point on national leadership. It has
worked effectively in other areas—for example, in gene technology, where the
Commonwealth played a role in getting uniform legislation in the states on a
new and emerging issue when the science was not necessarily clear or it was a
new area for legislation to address. I think there is a role for Commonwealth
coordination to get state standards or mechanisms in line.
Similarly, NELA urged the 'Australian government to exercise leadership
and to play a central role in developing a national strategy that should cover
prevention, removal, mitigation and monitoring the spread of marine plastic
One way of increasing national coordination and leadership was put
forward by Dr Waddell who commented that NELA promoted the establishment of a
national oceans commission and possibly an Oceans Act as:
...there seems to be a lot of acknowledgement that the
coordination between the Commonwealth level and the state levels is not working
very well across the marine jurisdiction. When you have the state jurisdiction
going out to, in most cases, three nautical miles and then the Australian
Commonwealth waters starting after that, there is not a great deal of
coordination going on.
Mr Sahukar, EDOs Australia, also called for the establishment of a
National Environment Commission based on the recommendations of the 2009 Hawke
Review of the EPBC Act.
He stated that a National Environmental Commission could:
...provide arm's length and strategic oversight of
environmental issues and advise the minister, and to play a sort of foresight
role to foresee some of these emerging issues and to provide national
leadership and coordination in addressing some of those issues.
Mr Sahukar went on to explain that a National Environment Commission
could ensure that best-practice environmental measures could be implemented
However, as an alternative to a specific body to further marine
environmental matters, NELA supported COAG as an appropriate body for the
development of an intergovernmental framework for the coordination of marine
and coastal management. NELA stated that:
This issue goes to arrangements under our federal system of
government and as Council of Australian Governments (COAG) is the peak
intergovernmental forum in Australia it is the most appropriate body.
It highlighted that the inclusion of the President of Australian Local
Government Association (ALGA) in COAG is important as a number of measures
which are critical for the prevention of marine plastic pollution are the
responsibility of local governments.
While NELA supported coordination of marine matters under COAG, it went
on to comment that currently marine issues are not on the COAG agenda. It
pointed to COAG's most recent Communiqué
which included water, climate change and the environment under the heading of
'A new economic and Federation reform agenda'. However, coastal or marine
issues are not mentioned.
In addition, NELA observed that in December 2013, COAG replaced the
22 Standing Councils, Select Councils and governance fora with eight
Councils, and that this revoked the Standing Council on Environment and Water
(SCEW). SCEW provided a forum for intergovernmental agreement on environmental protection
and water management issues and challenges. It also enabled governments to
coordinate environment and water related programs and funding. NELA concluded
It is notable that SCEW appears to have been focused more on
fresh water than the coastal and marine environment. However, the revocation of
SCEW indicates the low priority being given to the environment and water within
COAG and this extends to the coastal and marine environment.
Though SCEW has been disbanded, the department informed the committee
that the Minister for the Environment, and state and territory environment
ministers, continue to meet as a body that has come to be known as 'the meeting
of environment ministers'. These meetings occur on a 'reasonably regular basis,
at least a couple of times a year' and there is a 'senior officials' network
and committee system' that provides advice to the ministers.
The department commented that in relation to marine plastic pollution,
the focus of the meeting of environment ministers has been on packaging and
waste. In particular, it has considered banning microbeads, and the phase-down
of lightweight single use plastic bags.
Submitters also commented on the role of the Australian Government in
international areas. Ms Ellen Geraghty, NELA, saw an opportunity for Australia
to be more involved in regional environment programs 'as they seemed to offer
some useful mechanisms' for addressing marine plastic pollution. For example,
Australia is a member of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme. The
Programme focuses more on pollution generally in the marine environment rather
than plastics but it was seen as way of improving action at a regional level.
In addition, NELA commented that 'the problem of [marine plastic pollution] is
suitable to be raised in regional forums and to become the focus for
international aid provided to Indonesia and neighbouring countries'.
The Sydney Coastal Councils Group went further and suggested that
Australia initiate a regional approach in the Asia-Pacific:
...the Federal Government should lead the development of an
international agreement with neighbouring countries throughout the Asia-Pacific
to facilitate a regional approach to reducing marine plastic pollution. Given
that plastics can travel extensive distances through ocean currents and wave
action, a regional approach is essential.
The committee notes that the TAP recognised the Asia-Pacific region as a
source of marine debris, and that the Australian Government should contribute
to raising awareness of marine debris in the region. Action 1.15 of the TAP
required the department and relevant agencies 'to examine introducing
awareness-raising and outreach programs aimed at relevant groups contributing
to marine debris in the Asia-Pacific region'. It appears from the TAP Review
that no progress was made in relation to this action.
Action item 1.17 required the department, in collaboration with the Department
of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to strengthen relations with regional neighbours
on marine debris through relevant fora, and develop collaborative project
proposals to address the sources and impacts of harmful marine debris. The TAP
Review noted the work undertaken in relation to derelict fishing gear from
Indonesia. In addition, there have been exchange visits and study tours on
community-based marine planning and management in East Timor, Rote Island in eastern
Indonesia and Indigenous communities in Australia's north.
AMSA also commented that Australia is a participant in the Pacific Ocean
Pollution Prevention Programme which was updated in 2014 and recognises marine
plastics and marine debris more generally as a significant source of pollution.
There are a number of proposed actions (subject to funding) including
investigating sources of abandoned lost or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG);
regional workshop on ALDFG training; improved ghost net management;
opportunistic sampling of ocean plastic debris; and develop Secretariat for the
Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) region marine debris network.
AMSA has also assisted SPREP to undertake gap analyses of ports in the region
that could act as waste hubs. This will help Pacific small island developing
states to meet their MARPOL requirements.
The EPBC Act and the TAP are the primary mechanisms for the management
of the threat of marine plastic pollution to listed species, however the 2014
review of the TAP found that the threat had not been abated. The committee is
disappointed with the apparent lack of action on this issue. However, the
committee is encouraged to learn that the revised TAP will recognise that
plastic, and microplastics in particular, pose a threat to the marine
environment. The committee looks forward to the release of the revised TAP, and
is of the view that urgent implementation is required.
The committee is of the view that there is a need for increased national
leadership on marine plastic pollution abatement. Further, there is a need for greater
sound, peer-reviewed research on the effects of marine plastic pollution and
for this research to inform future government policy. Funding for this research
should be provided a range of stakeholders. The committee believes that
consistency in reporting and data collection is critical to such research and
policy development. As such, the implementation and support for a nationally
consistent marine debris database should be priority for the Australian
Given that COAG brings together representatives from Commonwealth, state
and territory, and local government, the committee believes the Australian
Government should support the inclusion of marine plastic pollution on the
agenda as a matter of urgency. The committee is of the view that COAG will
provide an appropriate mechanism for an increased level of national leadership,
and national consistency in policy development.
In the absence of a COAG council to address marine plastic pollution,
the committee is of the view that the environment ministers group provides an important
opportunity for national coordination and leadership.
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