Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (10:44): I disagree with the amendment and I support the Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Amendment Bill 2021, unsurprisingly. I have been around for a while—but I haven’t been around forever—and when I was a child, you’d go to the hardware store, you’d grab a paper bag and you’d grab the bolt nails and stick them in the paper bag. It was the same when I went to the lolly shop, in fact. Lollies didn’t come prepacked; they came in bulk containers—I suppose you’d call them—and you’d get a bit of this and a bit of that.
In those days you’d go to the butcher shop and the meat was wrapped up in paper. Interestingly, the floor was covered in sawdust as well. But those times seem to have gone. Meat is now sitting on polystyrene and covered up with plastic. I guess it’s healthier in the short term, but one has to ask whether it’s healthier in the long term, I suppose. Packaging has changed so much. We are wont to rail at multinationals but, of course, they do respond to consumer demand. I don’t think it should be forgotten that, when these changes occur, it’s in with the new but it’s out with the old because the old is no longer supported—and so it has been with packaging. So, presumably, in large doses, the world has got what it wanted, but it’s leading to problems.
Plastic of course has been a godsend as well as a curse. I love my cling wrap, and I like to handle my food in cling wrap. When I open up the cheese I make sure it’s got cling wrap on it afterwards so it doesn’t deteriorate, and I do that with many other things. But cling wrap is one of the really difficult things to recycle, though it’s not large. Plastic recycling basically comes in three distinct streams. There’s clear plastics, which is like PET bottles. That is the top grade; it can be used for virtually anything. Then there are hard plastics. That’s more like the tie around the top of your bread. Then there are soft plastics, like cling wrap.
My children grew up thinking that I was the duct tape king of the west coast. When I say the west coast, I mean the west coast of South Australia. I mean, there’s nothing dad can’t fix without duct tape—and I do not want to take the world back to a place without it because it will all fall to bits. But, once again, it’s made of plastics. We are so dependent on it in the modern world. But it seems to be an ever-increasing stream of plastic, and we have to face up to that.
We’ve had a lot of changes in response to the management of rubbish, not just in the federal parliament but also right across the Australian continent, I would say. In any kind of urban or city environment now we see multiple bins—separation at the end of the first use of the plastic, if you like. Then, of course, there are sorting stations, where we all rubbish is pulled out of the bin and divided into where it should be go. Then there is the taxing and limiting of landfill. I know this is slightly off target, but I want to come back to that a little bit later because I think that has particular implications on rural and regional populations. They are an added cost. I think when we make policy, not only in this place but also in our state parliaments, some of these things could be more carefully considered before one-size-fits all legislation is passed that does not necessarily make sense in other places.
But to this legislation, in particular: the bill combines with earlier legislation that we’ve moved in this area, particularly the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act, which bans the export of recyclable plastics. In fact, it adopts the notion that every nation is responsible for its own waste, and I think that is a pretty fair outcome to come to. And, earlier this week, in the other place, we finally dealt with the National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Selection, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill. Of course, under the UN agreement there is exactly the same circumstance—that, if the waste is created in your nation, you are directly responsible for dealing with the long-term management of that waste. I was very pleased to see that bill pass on Monday night. So every nation is responsible for its own.
In South Australia, the government there has taken some proactive moves. We’ve begun the banning of single-use plastics. Straws, swizzle sticks and plastic knives and forks are all finished, and I suspect plastic plates and a few other things won’t be far behind. We now seem to be eating off wooden forks and—surprise, surprise!—we’ve turned back the clock and we’ve got paper straws. These are, once again, somewhere near those packets of nails we used to pick up at the hardware store. Just on the hardware store, let me ask, Mr Deputy Speaker: have you ever noticed that when you go in there now you actually have to take a pair of tinsnips with you so you can open the packet on your new pair of pliers to use them? The packaging is just so robust, so strong and so indestructible. You do have to wonder whether we could change behaviour in that area. Perhaps that’s something this parliament should consider another time. I know why it’s largely liked: it’s easy to handle and it’s good to advertise on. But, it would be a fair thing to ask, is it necessary? And maybe, at another time, we might address that.
I’m grateful to the shadow minister for the environment for putting some of the numbers out there about plastic, showing why it is undeniably a hazardous waste. There are around eight million tonnes of plastic that go into the world’s oceans each year and, I’m told, about one per cent of that floats. By process of elimination, I come to the conclusion that about 99 per cent of it sinks. And, of course, it continues to deteriorate and break up into microscopic pieces which are further and further infiltrating the environment. Somewhere along the line, we have to break that pipeline.
I also heard the shadow minister speaking about the amount of rubbish on our beaches. It is a concern. I go for a bit of a jog in the morning along my beach at Port Neill, which doesn’t have a lot of it. When I’m running and I see a bit of rubbish, I pick it up and make sure I take it back and get it back into the waste stream. But I’d have to say that, like with some other issues, Australia’s contribution to plastics finding their way to the ocean—and we’re big consumers of plastic—is probably far, far better on a per capita basis than that of many other nations in the world. Australians generally are good with their plastics. In fact, I talked before about the straws and single-use plastics we got out of the road. We’ve also gotten rid of a lot of shopping bags in some of the precincts in Australia, including in South Australia. I think our beaches, by world standards, are pretty good.
Most of us in parliament would have had the privilege to travel, and would have had the privilege to travel to the developing world, where you see mountains of plastic and where the rivers and streams are actually being used as garbage disposal units. I suspect that’s where the bulk of this eight million tonnes a year is coming from. It is right that we should be addressing our plastics stream in Australia; it is also very important that we become involved in the world conversation here and try to bring about change in the parts of the world that the bulk of the plastics are coming from. There is a very strong similarity here to CO2 reduction in the world. We can make restrictive legislation in Australia and we can tidy up what we do, but unless the rest of the world is on the same boat it will all be to no avail in the long run. So it’s right that we can develop good technologies here. We can export those around the world, and so we can with the recycling of plastic.
The government has a number of grants and schemes in place to help businesses set up plastics recycling plants, processing plants, across the nation. There have been a number of councils and others that have approached me over recent months to see what we can get in our local communities to employ people in what will be this new processing stream. We’ve seen—in South Australia it’s been there for many years, but other states are adopting it now—the container recycling legislation. While it comes at a cost, it also employs people in the stream and it leads to a great result where we end up with a very high rate of cans and bottles being recycled. People get employed and those products come back in another form. That’s been quite outstanding legislation over a long time, and I’m very pleased that other states have finally got to that point.
This legislation enables the relevant body, the government’s hazardous waste advisory service, to access the best information around the world, giving it more flexibility. This is a world problem; it’s going to be very important that we help each other out around the world to come up with the best solutions to deal with it. Once again, it has a very similar theme to the reduction of CO2 in the world. We actually have to feed technology to develop the materials and the plant to deal with the issue in front of us so that it’s not such a financial impost that we cannot handle it. Now, in Australia we will handle the impost, but I talked about the developing nations. If you’re trying to feed your kids, if you’re actually trying to get heating into households, this is a very low-priority issue for them. We have to make it as painless as we possibly can. If you can deliver technology that actually saves money rather than costing money, that’s when you reach the perfect position.
I said I wanted to come back to regional issues. I have been concerned, particularly in South Australia—and that’s the only area I have any particular expertise in—about the way that landfill and the rubbish stream has been handled. It has been handled with what I think is a very city-centric view of the world. This sees communities as far as 800 kilometres away from Adelaide having to transport their waste down to the large landfill and separation sites. On this and other areas, I have challenged a number of scientists who have come in during various Science Weeks and whom I have met over the years. We know, for instance, that methane is 28 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, and not one scientist has yet been able to tell me whether, if we allow green waste to break down into methane, you get 28 times less of it than you would if you had burnt it and it turned into CO2.
That might seem to be an esoteric thing to bring into this debate, but the reason I make that point is that it’s very difficult to formulate sensible policy unless you actually understand the science that underpins it. In the case of recycling, we get told, for instance, that burning plastics is a disaster, but no-one tells us why. If it’s about particulate damage to those who live close to the site of burning, well, that’s a very good point. But that’s not the same as turning the world’s atmosphere into poison. Unless we understand what the real scientific values are, and I don’t pretend to—I may get shot down in flames for that statement. I don’t pretend to know, but nobody is explaining to me what the differences are when we handle waste in different ways. So, to come back to that issue of mine with landfill, no-one seems able to explain to me why it is better for regional councils to have to transport their rubbish 500, 600 or 800 kilometre than to burn it on site. If they can’t explain it to me, I find it very difficult to defend.
I throw those things in because there is an opportunity that maybe it might trigger somebody else’s imagination, their thought processes, and we might get to a stage where we are provided with better information by the scientific community. I’m a great admirer of the scientific community. I am rather despondent that fewer and fewer people of the modern world seem to be listening to them. But good facts are good material for people like me, in this position, when I speak to the Australian public. I endorse the bill.