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Despite the so-called ban on plastic bags, plastic pollution remains prevalent – and Victoria’s waste crisis has only exposed the inefficacy of our recycling schemes. By Russell Marks.

Government inaction on plastic pollution

Since plastic bags became a staple of supermarket checkouts in the mid-1980s, they have proved remarkably durable. Not only in their lifespans, which may extend to a thousand years in the right conditions. Plastic bags survived Peter Garrett’s January 2008 promise to phase them out by the end of that year. Indeed, they survived his entire political career, and those of Garrett’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, and, thus far, four successors. They have even survived their own “bans” in four states and two territories.

In recent years, consumers in most parts of Australia – though not Victoria or New South Wales, unless you’re in a major supermarket – have been told they are participants in a ban on “single-use” plastic bags. Yet a consumer in any of those places can today walk into a supermarket, carry their foodstuffs home in a plastic bag, and chuck it away. Or use a thicker plastic bag, which will take even longer to degrade, as a bin liner, in the same way they once used thinner bags, which have reportedly been banned.

Except they haven’t.

No state, territory or retailer has banned the “barrier bags”, which remain freely available in fresh food sections so shoppers can prevent their apples and pears from contaminating one another on the journey home. Nor has anyone banned the plastic bags encasing grape bunches, sliced bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, pre-chopped lettuce and countless other products. Not to mention shrink-wrapped single cucumbers and other plastic wrapping.

The harm plastic does – to wildlife, to ecosystems and ultimately, through its toxins, to humans – is well documented. According to research from the University of Newcastle, there is so much plastic in our ecosystem, Australians are ingesting a credit card’s worth of plastic every week. On average, each Australian uses 130 kilograms of plastic every year.

Visit almost any Australian beach before the Beach Patrol volunteers do their daily clean-ups and you’ll observe something of the scale of the unfolding marine catastrophe. Yet plastic is cheap, durable and handy, so manufacturers and retailers find more and more uses for it. Consumers also tend to like cheap, durable and handy. It’s a problem without a market solution.

That is why, in May 2016, in a tiny electorate office about 100 metres from the plastic empire that is the Westfield Southland Shopping Centre in the Melbourne suburb of Cheltenham, I wrote a bill. The Environment Protection Amendment (Banning Plastic Bags, Packaging and Microbeads) Bill was introduced into Victoria’s Legislative Council by the politician I then worked for – first-time Greens MLC Nina Springle.

The bill was simple. It flipped the default position on all plastic bags, prohibiting the sale or supply of every bag made of plastic, unless specifically exempted by the environment minister. It also banned retailers from selling fruit or vegetables sealed or wrapped in plastic or foam. As far as we could tell, the bill was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. It was endorsed by major environmental groups, including the powerful Boomerang Alliance.

Neither Springle nor I came to the Greens as environmental campaigners. Her interests, and mine, were reflected in her other portfolio responsibilities – youth justice, child protection, family violence prevention, multiculturalism. But it didn’t take long for Springle and her two-and-a-half staff to convince ourselves that a “Plastic Free Sea” was a major campaign opportunity.

The Labor government, led by Daniel Andrews, then as now, was doing very little to reduce plastic pollution. It was curious, given the government’s efforts to present a progressive agenda. Amid a royal commission on family violence, voluntary assisted dying laws and a trial of safe injecting rooms, much of the Greens’ social agenda was being very effectively picked up by the Andrews government. But on plastics, there was minimal action being taken.

Plastics, both soft and hard, remain a growth industry in Australia, and there are a number of soft plastics manufacturers and wholesalers that operate in Victoria. Banning plastic bags, microbeads and ridiculous shrink-wrapped cucumbers was to be the first of a series of gradual but significant steps. Instead, an upper house committee, dominated by Labor and the Liberals, recommended “further consultation” and “further consideration”. The bill was killed off in October 2017.

The original plan called for a container deposit scheme to be established, to further incentivise consumers to avoid littering plastic and glass bottles, and to provide additional revenue streams for community groups and people on low incomes. South Australia has had one since 1977. I had grown up in Adelaide and knew the sky wouldn’t fall in if the government had to pay a few cents for each container deposited.

But the plan would raise the retail price by – a refundable – 10 cents. And so the major beverage companies, led by Coca-Cola Amatil and the major retailers, were and are dead against a scheme for Victoria, as they have been everywhere else. In the Northern Territory, Coke even took the scheme to the Federal Court in 2013, and temporarily won. The Victorian Labor Party voted against the scheme in August 2018.

The Andrews government hasn’t shifted its position in the face of the crisis that has engulfed Victoria’s biggest recycler – SKM Recycling, now insolvent – and has seen councils’ “comingled” recyclables amass in warehouses and landfills since China stopped importing it in late 2017. The crisis has confirmed what many environmentalists already knew: recycling as we’ve been doing it – by councils selling recyclables overseas – does little to address Australia’s waste problem. It allows the guilt-free consumption of plastics, so long as consumers simply do the right thing and avoid landfill. Container deposit schemes, which councils are now pushing for, can at least slow down plastic pollution.

In reality though, plastic pollution can only really be curbed by preventing its consumption – and its production. The Victorian government has invested $135 million in waste reduction, but that pales against the $400 million now in its Sustainability Fund, which gets a perverse top-up via a levy it collects for every tonne of recyclate sent to rubbish tips. Victoria’s environment minister, Lily D’Ambrosio, has stopped telling her state what her predecessor was telling us three years ago: that Victorians litter less and recycle more than the rest of the country.

Even if those claims were ever true, relative rates are meaningless when we consider the sheer amount of plastic the state is generating. From November, Victoria will finally “ban” one kind of thin plastic bag – following every other state and territory except NSW, and every major retailer. Inevitably, this will increase sales of garbage bags and thicker plastic bags, which is what has happened everywhere else.

Plastic proved more durable than the Greens, whose upper house presence – and capacity to push through change in parliament – was decimated in last year’s Victorian election. Localised “plastic free” initiatives across the country – on councils, at outdoor markets and music festivals and in households – are doing their part to reduce plastic consumption. But none of these efforts will put even a dent in the problem without significant state action in the public interest.

The author is not a member of any political party.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "A rubbish argument". Subscribe here.

Russell Marks
is an honorary associate at La Trobe University. He has worked as a criminal defence lawyer, a cricket coach, an academic, a policy adviser and a speechwriter.