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Banning Plastic Supermarket Bags

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Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (13:32:16): It is a pleasure to rise to open the debate on behalf of the coalition on the  Environment   Protection  Amendment Bill 2019 which, as the long title tells us, is a bill to amend the  Environment   Protection  Act 1970 to prohibit the provision of certain plastic bags and to prevent the provision of misleading information relating to plastic bags and to make technical and consequential amendments to the  Environment Protection Amendment Act 2018.

Of course what that really means is that this bill undertakes two separate and quite distinct functions: the first is to introduce a ban on a particular type of plastic bag, specifically shopping bags; and the second is a series of amendments to an act which has not even commenced operation yet—the  Environment   Protection  Amendment Act 2018.

Before I dive into the weeds on the bill, I want to acknowledge the briefing that was received by the opposition on this bill, arranged through the minister’s office. It was, as we have come to expect, a comprehensive briefing, and I thank the minister for arranging it and making that opportunity available.

The minister in her second-reading speech talked at length about plastic bags and banning plastic bags, and I intend to come back to that issue in a little while. But there was one other paragraph in the second-reading speech that people may have missed, particularly seeing that second-reading speeches are no longer read but simply incorporated. That paragraph reads:

The Bill will also correct minor technical errors in the  Environment   Protection Amendment Act 2018, expected to commence on the first of July 2020. That Act was passed to comprehensively reform Victoria’s  environment   protection  laws. The technical amendments will ensure the new legislation operates as intended.

That is one very short paragraph in a second-reading speech of four pages. I thought that was interesting, because this is a bill of 48 clauses—three of them are the usual clauses that we see appearing in every bill, seven of them actually relate to banning plastic bags and 38 of the clauses in this bill correct what are euphemistically called ‘minor technical errors’.

Now, as part of my process of working through this bill, I have reviewed each and every one of those 38 clauses. I do not intend to go through them

— Members interjecting.

Mr MORRIS: I have got the time. I could do it, but I will take mercy on the house and not regale members with each of those 38 clauses.

There are two points to be made. The first is that I agree these changes are necessary. They are relatively minor in nature and they do solve some issues.

The second point, though, as far as I am concerned, is that the opposition would really rather the government got their legislation right in the first place.

We do not need to have 38 changes to an act that has not even commenced operation—I mean, seriously! I am sure it has happened before, but I certainly do not recall in my time in any other circumstances where there has been a requirement to bring in 38 clauses of a bill to change legislation that has yet to commence operation. It is a pretty ordinary aspect of this bill.

With respect, if I could suggest to the minister and perhaps to her colleagues in the cabinet: less haste, more speed might help us here.

The reality is the government has an obligation to bring in a bill that is technically correct. I am happy to debate policy issues—that is what this Parliament is all about—but I do not think it is an unreasonable expectation that when the government brings in a bill and says it is going to achieve X, Y and Z, that they actually get that right.

That is not an unreasonable expectation, and it is not just about the operation of the Parliament.

The changes to the  Environment   Protection  Act 2017 are significant and they are important, and it is not only the Parliament that needs to get it right. It is the public that needs to get it right, particularly businesses that are operating in an  environment  where they may come under the purview of the  Environment   Protection  Act, and of course with the move to a duties-based act that is going to pick up many, many more commercial operations I would expect so it is important to get it right.

You have only got to look at the advice that is being prepared by the major law firms for their various clients and the conjecture about how particular clauses may be interpreted to appreciate just what a significant change this is, and it does not help if the Parliament, particularly the government, cannot get the legislation right in the first place. This is take two. Hopefully it is the last time we will see these particular provisions before the house.

Back to what I consider to be the substantive part of this bill, and that is part 2 of the bill, clauses 3 to 9, and the banning of plastic bags. I am very pleased to be able to say that the Liberal Party and the National Party in coalition will be supporting this bill, because we recognise that plastic pollution is a major environmental threat and we will always support practical measures that are aimed at fixing particular issues.

Now I am not suggesting for a moment that this bill is the panacea for all the ills that flow from plastic pollution; it is a very small part of the major puzzle, but it is an important part of the puzzle and until we start seeking to actively tackle these challenges we will not  make a serious impact.

The figures when it comes to plastic bags frankly are just amazing. Plastic bags are ubiquitous in the most absolute sense. They are literally everywhere and in every household they are used for so many different things, but they eventually find their way into places where they cause environmental damage.

I believe at one point Australians were using 10 million new single-use plastic bags every day. That is a scary number. It really is. That is four bags for every person—adult, child, newborn—in the country every single day. It is a scary number. One hundred and fifty million bags a year end up in the waterways and ultimately in the oceans, or at least they did before the major supermarkets took the lead and actively reduced the numbers; I am sure there are still plenty ending up where they should not.

And of course most of the kerbside operators—where we still have a functioning kerbside system—do not accept plastic bags. To the extent that the current kerbside recycling system is effective—and unfortunately that is up for question because, as the Auditor-General confirmed, we simply do not have accurate figures on what we are recycling; we know what is sent for recycling but we do not know the tonnage each year that is actually recycled—what we do know about single-use plastic bags is that virtually none of them find their way into the recycling system.

At the most 3 per cent of plastic bags get recycled in this country, the single-use plastic bags. At best something over 90 per cent finish up in landfill. The rest finish up in the streams and waterways and eventually find their way into the ocean.

Of course the issue with these plastics is they are not biodegradable. Yes, it breaks down, but it breaks down into smaller pieces. It breaks down into microplastics, but it is not biodegradable. It does not go away, and of course the smaller the pieces that it breaks down into, the more damage it can do in an environmental sense. It never goes away; it just becomes microplastics.

The other point I think is almost as important—that is, with any plastics that are not recycled, but particularly with single-use plastics, you use them once and they are gone, and this is not a renewable resource or not renewable in millennia effectively.

We are, I am advised, consuming 17 million barrels of oil each year to generate plastics. Now that is not just single-use plastics, that is not just milk bottles, that is all plastics, but every plastic product that we produce that does not get recycled is a wasted resource because it is gone, and that is just absolutely crazy. It makes no sense at all.

The other point I want to make is a number of people have said to me, ‘Look, why do you need to lead on this?’, ‘Why do we need to be out in front?’. Well, I think it is pretty obvious we are not. We are ahead of New South Wales to be fair, but South Australia, Queensland, the ACT and Western Australia all have bans in place. If you look at Europe, most of the members of the European Union have significant taxes on bags. The one that does not have a significant tax on bags is the Netherlands, and they have banned the use of these bags completely.

The bill before us is banning bags under 35 microns. In New Zealand they have gone to 70 microns. I am not advocating for that; I am simply saying this is a step. It is a first step, but it is not the step. Recently Canada announced a ban from 2021. California of course introduced their ban in 2016, and in New York State, while many local authorities already have bans in place, by March next year they will have, again, a statewide ban, and so on—Hawaii et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The other reason I think we need to be in this space is frankly Victorians get it. They understand the convenience of plastic bags but they also appreciate the damage that that convenience can cause the  environment .

They do not want to leave the heavy lifting to others around the world. They want to be involved. They want to be doing the right thing. They want us as a Parliament to provide leadership. They expect nothing less of us, and it is up to us to do it.

So what is in the bill? Really, as I said, apart from the 38 extraneous clauses cleaning up the mess from imperfect legislation that was passed last year, it is really a pretty straightforward bill. Initially to be done under the  Environment   Protection  Act 1970 by legislation, my understanding is when the new  Environment   Protection  Authority Victoria act finally comes into operation these sorts of measures can be undertaken by regulation, but at the moment we need to do it by legislation.

There are a couple of definitions in the bill. A ‘banned plastic bag’ is defined. Essentially it is a bag that is used at point of sale of retail, with handles and that is either wholly or partly plastic, whether it is compostable or not. It has a thickness, as I mentioned earlier, of less than 35 micrometres, or is a prescribed banned plastic bag. Interestingly at this point those bags used at  a supermarket to pick up fresh fruit items or vegetable items are not banned. They are referred to in this bill as ‘barrier bags’. There is a class of exempt bags which includes barrier bags.

There are provisions in there relating to a pollution abatement notice. There are requirements on retailers not to provide these banned bags, and I understand there has been some work done with the Australian Retailers Association in this regard.

There will be some disadvantage to businesses with the introduction of this. I think the environmental upside does outweigh the inconvenience, but it is important to recognise the inconvenience to make sure that we have transitional arrangements in place that minimise that inconvenience and minimise that cost, particularly to small businesses who often have less capacity to be as adaptive as their larger competitors with large staffs that can be applied to dealing with these problems.

Once the bill commences operation a penalty will be in place for allowing a banned plastic bag for persons who effectively take goods out of the shop in one of those bags—60 penalty units for a person and 300 penalty units for a corporation. There are provisions relating to misleading information, powers of authorised officers and powers to make regulations as well. I think that really takes us back to where we started.

This is, in my view, an important step, but as I said it is really only the first step in dealing with the problem of plastics. It is a battle that I suspect is going to need to be fought for some time. But we on this side of the house, the Liberal Party and National Party in coalition, are very happy to support the bill.