Conclusion and recommendations
In 2011, the United Nations Environmental Programme described marine
plastic pollution as a 'toxic time bomb'. Plastic pollution is both persistent
and pervasive—it is estimated that 150 million tonnes of plastic are present in
the global marine environment, and unless this plastic is identified, collected
and removed, it continues to exist, albeit in increasingly smaller pieces. As
rates of plastic production and consumption increase, it is expected that the
rates of plastic entering the ocean will similarly increase. Marine plastic
pollution has been identified as having wide-ranging impacts on marine fauna,
ecosystems, human health and business.
This inquiry examined the sources and effects of marine plastic
pollution, and sought to identify mitigation strategies which will deliver a
reduction in the rate of marine plastic pollution in Australia and Australian
waters. The inquiry also examined the feasibility and effectiveness of programs
designed to collect and remove marine plastic pollution.
The plastic problem
Plastics are now a core element of modern life: they are used in all
sectors from construction to medicine and packaging. The demand for plastics is
growing steadily with the World Economic Forum forecasting that production of
plastics is expected to double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050. The
demand for consumer goods has contributed to the levels of plastics used in
packaging—the World Economic Forum noted that 26 per cent of all plastics are
used for packaging.
As plastics are durable, once their usefulness is at an end, the problem
of disposal arises. From the evidence received, disposal is often neither
efficient nor undertaken with the short- or long-term consequences to the
environment in mind. The low cost of plastics contributes to low levels of
recycling and the perception that plastic is 'disposable' means that it
generally ends up in landfill or is dumped indiscriminately as litter.
As a consequence, plastics are entering the world's oceans at an
alarming rate. The committee notes that, while there are some concerns about
the lack of rigor of some of the estimates of the amount of plastic in the marine
environment, they are still sobering: five trillion plastic pieces on the
surface of the oceans; eight million tonnes of plastics leaking into the ocean
each year—that is the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic every minute
of every day of the year.
In Australia, estimates of marine plastic pollution also point to the
magnitude of the problem. While limited research has been undertaken to fully
understand the extent of plastic debris, it is evident to the committee that there
is extensive marine plastic pollution in Australian coastal areas and in our
waters. This pollution is not limited to densely populated coastal areas;
studies have found plastic debris in remote North West Australia and remote
areas of Tasmania. The committee was also provided with graphic evidence of the
magnitude of marine plastic pollution from organisations and individuals who
undertake clean-up activities: the Tangaroa Blue database contains information
on 5.4 million marine debris items (500 tonnes). Evidence from local
government also pointed to the high volumes of urban litter, including
plastics, which they have recovered.
Plastics enter the marine environment from both ocean- and land-based
sources. In northern Australian waters, one of the most significant types of
ocean-based debris is ghost nets with up to three tonnes of ghost nets per
kilometre being found in the Gulf of Carpentaria. However, land-based sources
account for the vast proportion of marine debris—80 per cent by many estimates.
Much of the marine debris collected is packaging including beverage containers
and food packaging.
Of significant concern to submitters and witnesses was the amount of
microplastic debris (pieces less than five millimetres in size). Microplastics
can be intentionally produced (microbeads used in personal care products);
result from processes or use of products (fibres released with the washing of
synthetic fabrics); or result from degradation of larger plastic items. Plastics
are highly durable, and are now found throughout the marine environment, and of
most concern is that microplastics are difficult, if not impossible, to remove.
The committee found that there were few estimates of costs of marine
plastic pollution but the estimates available are staggering. The Asia-Pacific
Economic Cooperation estimated that the cost of ocean plastics to the tourism,
fishing and shipping industries was $1.3 billion in our region. In 2014, the
United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimated that the annual damage of
plastics to marine ecosystems is at least US$13 billion per year. The UNEP
went on to estimate that the after-use externalities for plastic packaging,
plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, was
US$40 billion. This estimate was seen as 'conservative' and exceeded the
plastic packaging industry's profit pool.
It is clear to the committee that, while there is limited quantitative
evidence of the magnitude of marine plastic pollution in Australia and
Australian waters, it is a problem that cannot be ignored and one that is
growing year-on-year. The economic costs of marine plastic pollution are
immense and are being borne by all levels of government through clean-up and
infrastructure costs. Businesses also face costs through damage to fisheries
and marine infrastructure and the costs to individuals and organisations in
time and resources are also considerable. While environmental damage is
difficult to evaluate at present, the committee considers that it is
wide-ranging and a significant externality of the ubiquitous use of plastics.
The effects of marine plastic pollution
The committee was provided with a range of evidence on the effects of
plastic pollution on marine fauna. Many of the submitters and witnesses pointed
to research being undertaken in Australia on the effects of marine plastic
ingestion and entanglement on marine fauna species.
Macroplastics, including lost fishing gear, are the main contributors to
entanglements. Individuals and organisations provided the committee with
graphic details of the injuries suffered by marine fauna through
entanglement—loss of limbs, scoliosis and infection. Many marine animals die
from being entangled in marine debris particularly turtles encountering ghost
nets in Australia's northern waters. However, the committee recognises that much
remains unknown about the extent of entanglements as most reports are either
restricted to opportunistic observations of animals or are from heavily visited
Ingestion of both macro- and microplastic marine debris by some marine
animals now appears to be more usual than not: over 50 per cent of turtles
worldwide have ingested marine debris and over 60 per cent of some species of
seabirds have been found with plastic in their gut and it is estimated that 99
per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050. Ingestion of marine
debris can cause significant problems for marine animals, for example,
decomposing plastics ingested by turtles produces gas which remains trapped
inside the animal and causes it to float. The turtle may then starve to death
or be the target of predators.
The committee was provided with disturbing evidence of the quantities of
plastic that can be ingested by seabirds. At both its Sydney and Brisbane
hearings, researchers showed the committee samples of material taken from
seabirds. Mr Ian Hutton presented a bag of 274 pieces of plastic ingested by a
single shearwater from Lord Howe Island—this represented 14 per cent of the
bird's body weight. There is also evidence that chicks are being fed plastic in
the nest. While there has been much research on the effects of plastic
ingestion on individual species of seabirds, the committee was informed that a
significant gap in relation to population level research exists.
The committee also received evidence that other marine
creatures—cetaceans, corals and zooplankton—have been found to ingest plastic. However,
the impact of ingestion on these species is less clear, though it is suspected
that negative health effects are occurring.
The evidence provided to the committee outlined the effects of marine
plastic pollution on fisheries and ecosystems. Fisheries are particularly at
threat from lost fishing gear while many of Australia's unique ecosystems are
fragile, and are already under threat from climate change, exploration and
Two issues of particular concern raised with the committee were the
possible effects of chemical bioaccumulation from plastic ingestion
particularly microplastics ingestion. Plastics contain many chemicals, some of
which are toxic. These can leach out of plastic debris, affecting marine
animals which have ingested the plastic and contaminating the marine
environment where it has lodged as litter.
Microplastics are also known to accumulate and carry toxic chemicals
present in seawater, and these chemicals are known to have negative effects on
the health of marine fauna. There is also concern that microplastics may
bioaccumulate, and that trophic transfer may occur.
Emerging research points to the significant threat of microplastic to
the marine environment. The committee was considerably alarmed to hear that the
potential effect on human health from the ingestion of microplastics in the
food chain is only now emerging as an area of research interest. The committee
is concerned that there may be a looming health crisis associated with seafood
consumption, and urges the prioritisation of research on this issue, and
appropriate investment from both government and industry. The committee also
considers that microplastics warrant specific focus in strategies aimed a
mitigating the effects of marine plastic pollution.
The committee acknowledges the range of research provided by witnesses.
However, it is clear from evidence received by the committee that there are significant
gaps in the understanding of the threat of marine plastic pollution. For
example, the extent of marine plastic pollution, particularly microplastics, effects
of marine plastic pollution; the impacts at the population level; and the effects
on ecosystems. As noted above, it appears that more research is required in
relation to microplastic pollution and possible effects on human health.
The committee considers that until these gaps are addressed, it will be
difficult to better understand the effects of marine plastic pollution and to
identify and implement mitigation strategies.
The role of the Australian Government
As outlined in the report, the Australian Government manages the threat
of marine plastic pollution through a variety of ways including the protection
of threatened and endangered species and ecosystems, the implementation of
international conventions, and the development and implementation of waste
The Threat Abatement Plan, established under the Environment
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is
designed to establish mitigation strategies and research priorities for the
federal and state and territory governments. The 2014 Review of the Threat
Abatement Plan identified that the threat to marine fauna from plastic
pollution had not been abated. The committee has grave concerns that this
finding points to a lack of action on the part of the Australian Government,
particularly in light of growing evidence on both the scale, and the effects,
of marine plastic pollution.
The Department of the Environment is currently revising the Threat
Abatement Plan and the committee notes the department's evidence that plastic
will be a focus of the revised plan. However, the committee is concerned that
there appears to have been a lack of consultation with leading Australian researchers
who could have provided a valuable contribution to the review. In addition,
while welcoming the emphasis on plastic in the revised plan, the committee is
concerned that, given the complexity of the task of addressing marine plastic
pollution, effective mechanisms must not only be identified but also
implemented. The committee considers that without the implementation of
measures contained in the revised plan and a commitment to achieve this by all
stakeholders, including industry, little abatement will occur. This would not
be an acceptable outcome.
While the EPBC Act and the Threat Abatement Plan are the primary means
for the Australian Government to address marine plastic pollution, the
committee received evidence that suggested that these were inadequate tools to effectively
mitigate the threat from marine plastic. Given the complexity of issues related
to marine plastic pollution, particularly microplastic pollution and the lack
of abatement under the Threat Abatement Plan, there were calls for the
establishment of a national body to directly address marine plastic pollution.
The committee has considered this suggestion. While acknowledging that
there has been little evidence of effective abatement under the Threat
Abatement Plan, the committee does not believe that, at the present time, there
is a need to establish a new dedicated marine plastic body.
Rather, the committee considers that the Australian Government should
develop policies in relation to marine plastic pollution that are research-based
so that the most efficient and effective mitigation strategies can be
established, and pursue issues through the Council of Australian Governments
and the meeting of environment ministers.
In relation to research, the committee notes the extremely small number
of research projects into marine debris that the Department of the Environment
has directly funded—five between 2003 and 2016. While there is research being
undertaken by CSIRO and numerous universities and institutes, the committee
considers that the support for research provided by the department in relation
to marine plastic pollution falls far short of what is required. The committee
considers that the problem of marine plastic pollution is too complex and
threatening for the Australian Government to rely on research conducted
overseas or research undertaken in Australia with cobbled together funds.
The committee recommends that any future Australian Government policies
on mitigating the threat from marine plastic be underpinned by sound,
The committee recommends that the Australian Government actively support
research into the effects of marine plastic pollution in Australian waters ,including
research to more fully evaluate:
the extent of marine plastic pollution;
the sources of marine plastic pollution;
the effects at the population level; and
the effects on ecosystems particularly in the Great Barrier Reef.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government actively support
research into the threat posed by microplastic pollution, including research to:
identify the extent of microplastic pollution;
evaluate the effects of microplastic pollution on marine fauna;
evaluate the effects of microplastic pollution on ecosytems; and
identify mitigation measures.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government actively support
research into the threat posed by marine plastic pollution, particularly
microplastic, on human health.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government undertake work
to identify and establish the costs of the externalities associated with marine
Substantial funding will be required to undertake the research needs
identified during the inquiry and recommended by the committee. The committee
acknowledges that government funding is limited.
The committee notes that funding for projects which contribute towards
the Australian Packaging Covenant's goals is provided by industry. In 2015, APC
signatories contributed $1.5 million to fund projects focusing on litter
reduction and delivering sustainable waste management solutions.
This is a considerable contribution to these projects. However, understanding
and addressing the threat of marine plastic pollution is complex, and there is
an urgent need to address identified knowledge gaps. As such, the committee
considers that it is appropriate that industry provides further support for
scientific research into the effects of marine plastic pollution, as well as
possible mitigation strategies. The committee is of the firm view that support
for scientific research is part of industry's product stewardship
responsibility and that this support should be in the form of funding.
The committee recommends that industry contributes further funding of
scientific research through the Australian Packaging Covenant.
The committee recommends that this funding be provided for research
which particularly addresses the effect of marine plastic pollution on marine
fauna, and human health from ingestion as well as research to identify
The need for a national database containing information on the types and
sources of marine plastic pollution in Australia was identified as being
critical to developing sound mitigation strategies. The committee received
evidence on the Tangaroa Blue Foundation's Australian Marine Debris Initiative
and CSIRO's marine debris survey. The committee also notes that there are a
number of other state- and organisation-based marine debris databases.
The committee supports the establishment of a national database for
marine plastic debris. Such a database would assist in ensuring consistent data
collection and recording and thereby provide a powerful tool to underpin
ongoing research. The committee notes that the CSIRO and Australian Marine
Debris Initiative have different uses. However, the committee considers that
there are mechanisms available to ensure that a national dataset would be
suitable for various applications. The committee considers that support should
be given to the establishment of the Australian Marine Debris Initiative as the
national database. In doing so, the committee recognises the extent of the
database, and the support provided by government and researchers to the
The committee recommends that the Australian Government consult with
stakeholders, including the Tangaroa Blue Foundation, CSIRO and relevant
scientists, to explore mechanisms to establish a national marine pollution
The committee further considers that there are means to achieving threat
mitigation through the utilisation of alternative legislative and already
existing regulatory mechanisms such as the National Environment Protection
Measures. The committee considers that the Australian Government should pursue
the mitigation of marine plastic pollution through these measures.
The committee also received considerable evidence encouraging the Australian
Government to provide national leadership in addressing the threat of marine
plastic pollution. The committee recognises the effect of geographic and
demographic influences on both the causes of marine plastic pollution, and in
mitigating the threat. Reducing marine plastic pollution requires a
multi-layered approach utilising whole-of-government initiatives, and
cooperation with state, territory and local governments. It also requires partnership
with not-for-profit organisations and industry, and community participation. Given
these many difficult factors, the committee considers that leadership by the Australian
Government is fundamental to finding effective solutions to marine plastic pollution.
One mechanism available to the Australian Government is to support the
inclusion of marine plastic pollution on the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)
agenda. The committee notes that in the most recent COAG communique coastal and
marine issues were not mentioned in relation to water, climate change and
environmental matters. In light of the evidence provided during the committee's
inquiry, the committee considers this to be a significant oversight. The committee
believes that marine pollution matters should be considered by COAG.
In addition, the committee considers that meetings of the environment
ministers, in the absence of a standing council of COAG for environmental
matters, provide an opportunity to coordinate measures to prevent further
plastic entering the marine environment. These meetings also offer an
opportunity to coordinate strategies to mitigate the effects of existing marine
The committee recommends that the Australian Government place marine
plastic pollution on the Council of Australian Governments' agenda for urgent
In recognition of the level of threat associated with plastic pollution
in Australia's marine environment, and the need for a comprehensive and
coordinated response, the committee recommends that the Australian Government
pursue the establishment of a working group, under the auspices of the meeting
of environment ministers, to address specific matters related to marine plastic
The specific matters which the committee considers should be addressed
by the working group established by the meeting of environment ministers include
mitigation strategies such as clean-up campaigns. These are discussed in detail
in the relevant sections of this chapter.
The committee considers that marine plastic pollution cannot be
addressed by Australia in isolation. Given Australia's proximity to heavily
populated areas to our north, the extensive fishing activities adjacent to
Australian waters, the large amount of sea traffic in the Pacific and Indian
Oceans and the complexity and increasing scale of marine plastic pollution,
regional cooperation will be vital.
The committee notes the work already being undertaken to provide support
for education and mitigation measures in Indonesia in relation to ghost nets.
However, the committee considers that the Australian Government should explore
further avenues to increase regional awareness of the threat of marine plastic
pollution and to provide support to our neighbouring countries through both
technical aid and financial assistance with mitigation measures. The committee
is particularly concerned that the Pacific island states have recognised the
threat of marine plastic pollution but may lack the resources to implement
The committee recommends that the Australian Government explore
opportunities for increased regional leadership and direct support on the issue
of marine plastic pollution, including projects focused on ghost net recovery.
Collecting and removing marine plastic pollution
Since the 1980s, clean-up campaigns have formed an integral part of
marine plastic pollution mitigation strategies. The committee received evidence
on the significant, and in some cases startling, volumes, collected and removed
from the marine environment across Australia. In Cape York for example, up to
one tonne of debris per kilometre is being removed annually.
The Australian Government supports clean-ups through the Australian
Government's Green Army Programme and ghost net retrieval programs. Support is
also provided by state and territory governments and local governments.
Nonetheless, the vast majority of clean-ups are undertaken by volunteers. The
committee acknowledges the enormous contribution made by volunteers and the
organisations that support them; without their efforts marine plastic pollution
would accumulate in coastal areas unchecked.
While the committee received evidence questioning the effectiveness of
clean-up efforts, it considers that clean-ups still play a vital role in
addressing marine plastic pollution. In addition, the committee recognises the
valuable role that clean-ups play in raising public awareness and providing
education on the sources and impacts of marine pollution. However, the
committee considers that there is a need for greater coordination of clean-up
efforts as well as a strategic approach.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government pursue
mechanisms to improve support and coordination of clean-up activities through
the meeting of environment ministers working group to ensure that the most
effective outcomes of these activities are achieved.
An area in which Australian Government agencies play a significant role
is the identification, collection and removal of abandoned, lost or otherwise
discarded fishing gear. In particular, Australian Government agencies respond
to ghost nets originating from fishing operations in neighbouring countries,
which commonly drift into northern Australian waters. Evidence indicated that
it is a complex issue which requires significant coordination and cooperation,
and that there are a number of areas where improvements could be made.
First, it was noted that the responsibility for ghost nets rests with
six Australian Government agencies (for nets in the Australian Fishing Zone) as
well state and Northern Territory counterparts (for nets in coastal waters),
and regional neighbours. Secondly, there is a lack of funding for retrieval of
ghost nets. The committee notes that the GhostNets Australia program,
originally funded from the National Heritage Trust, no longer receives direct
funding from the Department of the Environment. GhostNets Australia plays an
important role in ghost net retrieval as an alliance of Indigenous communities
from coastal northern Australia who work with researchers.
The lack of funding and coordination were identified as contributing to
delays in the identification and removal of ghost nets, and the subsequent
entanglement of significant numbers of marine fauna. It was also identified
that increased cooperation and regional leadership may result in a reduction in
ghost nets in Australian waters.
The difficulties associated with the collection and disposal of ghost
nets in remote areas were also raised with the committee. It was noted that
opportunities exist for innovative strategies to be developed and implemented
which would reduce the impact of burning large ghost nets in situ — including
the implementation of waste-to-energy systems in remote communities. The CSIRO
also told the committee that research into innovative strategies to tag fishing
gear may allow for the identification of net origin, and allow for greater user
The committee acknowledges that the coordination of retrieval of ghost
nets is an action under the Threat Abatement Plan. However, the committee
considers that ghost nets continue to pose a serious threat to marine fauna in
Australian waters, and Australian fisheries. The evidence points to a need to
improve coordination of agencies that identify and remove ghost nets. While
this matter will be addressed in the revised Threat Abatement Plan, the
committee considers that there is an urgent need to address coordination
problems. As such, it believes that the Department of the Environment should
undertake a review of current arrangements for the detection and removal of
ghost nets. The committee recommends that a nationally consistent strategy be
developed to ensure that ghost nets are detected and removed from both the
Australian Fishing Zone and coastal waters.
Further, the committee considers that continued engagement with the
governments and coastal communities of our near neighbours is critical to addressing
concerns with abandoned fishing gear.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government:
support CSIRO research to identify the extent of ghost nets in
Australian waters, and to identify means to prevent the loss of fishing gear;
support the development of innovative technologies for the
tagging of fishing gear and support the introduction of these technologies by
the Australian-based fishing industry, and by fishing industries in regional
undertake a review of current Commonwealth arrangements to detect
and remove ghost nets; and
develop a nationally consistent strategy through the meeting of
environment ministers working group to ensure that ghost nets are collected in
a timely manner in the Australian Fishing Zone, and coastal waters.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government reinstate
funding for GhostNets Australia to allow it to continue its work to identify and
retrieve ghost nets.
Source reduction – consumer behaviour and infrastructure
The importance of changing consumer behaviour, particularly in relation
to waste disposal was highlighted throughout the inquiry. The committee
received evidence that education campaigns, particularly those targeted at
specific user groups such as fishers and boat owners, can result in significant
reductions of marine debris. The committee recognises the value of community
education in preventing marine plastic pollution, and commends organisations
and government bodies undertaking this work.
The committee also notes that there is some community confusion
regarding the differences between biodegradable, degradable plastic,
compostable and traditional plastic. Of particular concern is the lack of
understanding about the ways in which these items should be disposed of, and
the end product. While consumers might feel they are 'doing the right thing' by
choosing biodegradable or degradable plastic, these products simply
disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces to become microplastic. The
committee strongly considers that education campaigns are required to ensure
consumers make informed choices about the alternatives to traditional plastics
The committee recommends that the Australian Government, through the
meeting of environment ministers working group, encourage all jurisdictions to
support the implementation of targeted education campaigns which aim to change
consumer behaviour in relation to the use of plastics, and to provide consumers
with information regarding alternatives to traditional plastic.
The implementation and maintenance of infrastructure such as public rubbish
bins has also been identified as being critical in promoting the responsible
disposal of plastic items by the public.
The committee received evidence about the amount of debris being
transported in the marine environment through the stormwater system. Local
governments install gross pollutant traps to lessen the amount of debris
entering stormwater systems but the committee heard that these were expensive
to install and maintain. The committee also received evidence that new
technologies are also available but similarly, the costs of retrofitting
existing systems with new technology is expensive and therefore less common
than it should be.
The committee's 2015 report on the management of stormwater resources in
Australia examined the critical role infrastructure plays in preventing the
movement of urban litter into the marine environment. In that report, the
committee recommended that the Australian Government work with the state and
territory governments to develop and implement a national policy framework for
stormwater management (a National Stormwater Initiative) (Recommendation 1) and
that new funding models and financial incentives be considered as a way of
facilitating improved stormwater management outcomes in an economically
efficient way (Recommendation 4).
The committee considers that implementation of these two recommendations
would greatly assist with the prevention of plastic debris entering the marine environment.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government implement the
recommendations from the Senate Environment and Communications References
Committee inquiry into stormwater management in Australia, in particular:
Recommendation 1—the development and implementation of a national
policy framework for stormwater management (a National Stormwater Initiative);
Recommendation 4—the consideration of new funding models and
financial incentives that would facilitate improved stormwater management
outcomes in an economically efficient way.
Container deposit schemes
Container deposit schemes were seen as a simple and cost effective way
to change consumer behaviour, and to reduce the number of beverage containers
found in the marine environment. There is strong community support for
container deposit schemes, evidenced by the number of submissions and form
letters received by the committee during the inquiry. The committee also notes
the compelling argument that container deposit schemes encourage widespread
participation in recycling through the provision of a financial incentive.
While container deposit schemes have been established in over forty
jurisdictions worldwide, only South Australia and the Northern Territory have
established container deposit schemes in Australia. The South Australian scheme
was established in 1977 and many submitters pointed to the benefits accruing
from this scheme. In particular, CSIRO research indicates that there has been a
reduction—by a factor of three—of beverage containers in the marine
environment. The high level of recycling in South Australia was also put
forward by supporters of container deposit schemes.
The committee supports the introduction of container deposit schemes in
all Australian jurisdictions. The committee believes that there are proven
benefits of such schemes, for example, the ability to remove an additional
35,000 tonnes from the waste stream. The committee considers that the
responsibility for implementation rests with each state and territory. However,
if container deposit schemes have not been introduced by 2020, the committee
believes that this matter should be revisited.
The committee recognises that the implementation of container deposit
schemes is a polarising issue with beverage industry representatives being
concerned about possible associated costs to consumers, industry and government.
While acknowledging these concerns, the committee is somewhat sceptical of many
of the arguments put forward by industry. In relation to concerns about the
costs that will be borne by the community, the committee notes that there will
be benefits to both the community and government in reduced costs of litter
collection and disposal, less landfill and the reduction of environmental
The industry also pointed to concerns that container deposit schemes
will reduce demand for beverages and thereby affect investment and employment
in the sector. The committee notes that there are currently other matters
affecting the beverage sector including concerns with the amount of sugar in
beverages which is leading to consumers reassessing their consumption habits.
Another concern put forward by the industry is the impact on kerbside
recycling. The committee notes that in jurisdictions in which kerbside
recycling exists without container deposit schemes, recycling rates remain alarmingly
low. In addition, research from PricewaterhouseCoopers presented to the
committee does not support the contention that kerbside recycling and container
deposit schemes cannot co-exist.
The committee notes that the industry opposes the introduction of a
refund-based container deposit scheme in New South Wales and has proposed an alternative—Thirst
for Good. This is a suite of initiatives including litter collection,
funding of bin infrastructure and reverse vending machines which do not offer
financial incentives. This alternative was criticised in evidence as overseas
experience demonstrates that non-refund programs fail. In addition, it was
argued that it is not effective in increasing recycling rates where consumption
takes place away from home.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government, through the
meeting of environment ministers working group, actively encourage the states
and territories, which have not already done so, to consider the most effective
methods to address marine plastic pollution in their jurisdictions. These
should include implementation of container deposit schemes and other
anti-littering mitigation strategies.
The committee recommends that, if all states and territories have not
introduced container deposit scheme legislation by 2020, the Australian
Government revisit the issue with the view to developing legislation for those
jurisdictions which are yet to implement container deposit schemes.
Source reduction – product
stewardship and regulatory frameworks
Source reduction strategies must also include changes in production and
manufacturing practices, and regulatory frameworks. The committee explored the
value of increased product stewardship, and the need for increased regulation
to prohibit the sale and use of certain products such as single-use lightweight
plastic bags and microbeads in personal care products.
Producers and manufacturers play a crucial role in reducing marine
plastic pollution, particularly through packaging design choices. The committee
received evidence on voluntary schemes such as the Australian Packaging
Covenant (APC), and the ways in which these schemes can be improved.
Insufficient reporting and the voluntary nature of the APC was
particularly criticised, as was the lack of enforcement and compliance activities
undertaken by government authorities. The committee notes that the APC is
currently under review and renegotiation and is of the view that this review
should recognise the magnitude of the environmental threat posed by single-use
packaging and consumer items. In addition, the committee considers that the APC
would benefit from improved reporting and compliance. Enforcement activities
under the APC should also be undertaken by relevant state and territory
The committee notes that the role of the plastic packaging industry in
reducing marine plastic pollution is not included under the current Threat Abatement
Plan. However, the committee is of the view that improved product stewardship
is critical to achieving a reduction in the volume of plastic entering the
The committee recommends that the revised Australian Packaging Covenant
include improved reporting and compliance by industry.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government, through the
meeting of environment ministers working group, engage with states and
territories to improve enforcement of the Australian Packaging Covenant.
The committee recommends that the Department of the Environment give
consideration to recognising the role of product stewardship in the Threat
Abatement Plan by including reference to the Australian Packaging Covenant
Evidence was received which showed the gains to be made in reducing
plastic pollution through innovation and design. In this regard, the committee
notes the efforts of the beverage industry in redesigning containers to reduce
the amount of plastic used. Other examples include the substitution of bamboo
utensils for use with takeaway food and starch 'peanuts' in packaging. These
are encouraging developments but the committee recognises that there are many
more areas where gains could be made through innovation and design.
The committee recommends that the review of the Australian Packaging
Covenant include support for the development innovative packing solutions that
offer alternatives to plastics.
During the course of the inquiry, a considerable amount of evidence was
received supporting the introduction of legislative bans of lightweight,
single-use plastic bags due to the volume of such items found in the marine
environment. The committee is aware that such bans have been implemented in a
number of jurisdictions in Australia and is of the view that such bans should
be considered in remaining states and territories.
The committee is concerned that existing bans have seen the widespread
replacement of single-use lightweight plastic bags with degradable plastic
bags. The committee received evidence that such items are in fact just as
harmful, and could pose a greater risk to marine fauna due to their increased
rate of degradation. The committee is of the view that such a replacement
should not be supported by government policy without further research.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government support states
and territories in banning the use of single-use lightweight plastic bags. In
doing so, the Australia Government should ensure that alternatives do not
result in other pollutants entering the environment.
Evidence was also received supporting a legislative ban on the
importation and production of personal care products containing microbeads. At
present, a number of manufacturers and retailers have announced a commitment to
phasing out such products. The committee notes that on 29 February 2016,
Minister for the Environment, the Hon Greg Hunt MP, announced that the Australian
Government will continue to support the voluntary phase out of microbeads,
however if this does not achieve what is in effect a ban by 1 July 2017,
then the Australian Government will implement a ban legislatively.
The committee is supportive of any moves to remove microbeads from
consumer products. However, it considers that the evidence of the level of
damage to the environment from microbeads is such that an immediate ban should
occur. The committee notes that microbeads have been banned in other
jurisdiction, for example, Canada where the House of Commons voted unanimously
to pass the relevant legislation.
The committee understands that there are avenues already available to
the Australian Government: banning importation through the listing products
containing microbeads as a prohibited import; and banning production of
personal care products containing microbeads under the Cosmetics Standard.
While such bans do not comprehensively address all sources of microplastics, it
is an important first step.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government move to
immediately ban the importation and production of personal care products
The committee also notes that there are other legislative mechanisms
which could be used to decrease the amount of plastics entering the
environment. This includes state and territory environmental protection
legislation and the MARPOL Annex V convention. Evidence received argued that
greater enforcement of these measures is required. The committee supports the use
of existing environmental protection legislation particularly in relation to
controlling the release into waste management systems of pre-production plastic
pellets (nurdles) from factories. The committee considers this would be an easy
and effective means of addressing pollution from nurdles.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government, through the
meeting of environment ministers working group, identify measures, including
regulatory measures, already available to prevent plastics entering the marine
environment and ensure that they are being implemented effectively in all
jurisdictions. In particular, the committee recommends that more effective
enforcement of environmental laws in relation to preventing nurdles entering
the waste management system be pursued.
Senator Anne Urquhart
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