Second Reading – Environment Protection Amendment Bill 2019

Mr FREGON (Mount Waverley) (16:40): I rise to also speak on the Environment Protection Amendment Bill 2019. The main purpose of this bill before us, as everyone has stated, is to introduce a ban on lightweight single-use plastic shopping bags. It is good to see that we have support from both sides of the house. Common sense is sometimes common.

Most of us could not imagine a world where we do not utilise the benefits of plastic. It is light, it is inexpensive, it protects and preserves, and it is now fundamental to our modern lives. It is used in everything from bubble wrap to prosthetic limbs, in toys to heavy industry. Even trains on our own Glen Waverley line are now travelling over plastic recycled sleepers made here in Victoria when they go through Richmond station. That said, with the abundant availability of plastic, we find ourselves all too quick to overuse and throw away this resource. Our world is filled with single-use plastic items, and we use them momentarily, but they can take hundreds of years to break down. So the more we throw away, the more problems we as a society are making for ourselves. Reducing the amount of these bags, as this bill does, therefore reduces this problem.

We have already seen the effects we can expect from this bill having seen the Coles and Woolworths changes last year. Over 12 months ago these bags that will now be banned were removed from two of our major supermarkets, and whilst I am still trying to remind myself to remove bags from under the sink and put them in the car—which I am working on—it is good to see some of my colleagues here are ahead of me. We need to bring these re-usable bags with us, and I need to put them in my car to go to my local supermarket down at Pinewood or Hamilton Place. In fact I can also thank the minister and this bill for reminding me to do that.

The bill we are debating today brings us to an important milestone in the ongoing process of tackling problematic plastics in our environment. It is one step of many along a path but an important step for our natural environment. The ban builds on the overwhelming support from our community, shown by the uptake of the use of re-usable plastic bags, and assists us in moving forward towards more sustainable alternatives. Since last July as I go to buy milk, bread or whatever I find myself considering the environment just a little bit more because of the fact that we are using these bags. I also see this effect on the parents and children at schools that I visit in Mount Waverley. Recently I spoke to children at Holy Family Primary School and was pleased to see their strong interest in environmental matters and issues. Also our own Parliament has been running a role-play on banning plastic bags with primary school children in this very chamber. These kids are growing up with environmental issues and concerns front and centre of their thinking. On a recent trip to Palm Cove my own daughter argued that we had to go snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef because she was concerned that it may not be the same the next time we had the chance to go. So our kids are growing up with these environmental issues very much in their minds.

Our government has worked closely with Victorian communities and businesses during the development of this plastic bag ban. The buy-in that we see from the public is a testament to that consultation and buy-in from the public. We as a state are not alone in this ban. Learning from the experience of other jurisdictions both in Australia and overseas has brought us here today with a ban that will produce the right outcomes for Victoria.

Some retailers in Victoria, as I have mentioned before, have already stopped providing lightweight single-use plastic bags, and I think it is fair to give them a shout-out for doing what they have done. The ban will not only reduce plastic pollution but assist with the health of our environment. This ban, not unlike the changes from retailers last year, builds awareness and shows the Victorian public that their government is moving to a more sustainable Victoria. We must encourage avoidance and re-use at all times, and in this way this bill is another step towards a circular economy.

The focus on a circular economy and its principles is being shown by our work in developing a circular economic policy and action plan for Victoria to be released later this year. We all want to see minimisation of waste and to know that we are making the most of our resources. Moving to a more circular economy will grow the economy, increase jobs and reduce impacts on the environment. In Mount Waverley we have a local men’s shed that is working on a re-use and recycle plan. This is something I am keen to see in practice. Not only does this project assist with the recycling of useful goods but also, as does all the work they do at the shed, it assists greatly with the mental health and social inclusion of our senior men in our community. So a big shout-out to Greg and all the blokes down at the shed.

The ban, once in place, will remove these single-use bags from our recycling bins, and by doing this will assist in the ease of recycling companies to sort and reprocess during recycling. We are joining the list of other states that have also banned these plastic bags and have aligned our approach with that taken in these other jurisdictions. This will ensure consistency for retailers and suppliers and therefore make the adoption of this change easier for those who operate in a national market.

It is no surprise that this ban causes a change for some retailers. This has been considered, and so to ensure our retailers and small businesses are ready for the ban, the government has engaged the National Retail Association, which will deliver an education and engagement program over the next year. Drawing on their years of experience in the sector, the National Retail Association will provide face-to-face engagement with stakeholders in a program which will encourage long-term sustainable packaging solutions. This implementation program, like others that they have run in Queensland and Western Australia, will also assist in promoting the ban to consumers.

Sustainability Victoria states that the government received over 8000 submissions in three months of public consultation on plastic pollution in 2017–18. From this we can clearly state that the Victorian community takes the issue of plastic pollution seriously. From this process we have received an enormous show of support for a ban on lightweight plastic shopping bags, with more than 96 per cent of submissions received supporting a ban. That is a fairly staggering number of people who agree on one thing.

We also heard that the Victorian community wants more action on plastic pollution. It is clear from public responses that the public wants to see more work in this space, and that is exactly what this government is delivering. Not only are we committed to decreasing plastic pollution entering our environment, as this bill does, but we do so knowing the Victorian public are with us. I have no doubt that we are tackling this problem head-on, and I thank the minister for not only this bill but the quantity of work we are seeing in this area moving us to a circular economy. I note that the inquiry into recycling and waste management will be reporting its findings towards the end of this year, and I look forward to reading through that report and seeing where we go.

We need to move away from a throwaway mentality. I know when my kids’ school asked parents to use less wrapping for school lunches, this was not necessarily simple for some, like me. For my part, I am not totally there yet—I still find this awkward—but it is the right way to go, and those of us who are a little recalcitrant in this area and find it a bit difficult have to change with the times for the good of our environment. It is another example of how much we are relying on plastics, but it reminds me that we need to think about where it goes once we have used it.

Plastic is not the bad guy in this debate, but we need to be aware of the problems that its usage and our reliance on it causes. Our government is aware that we must utilise these benefits without compromising the Victorian environment. We need to align our systems around a common vision. So where we can eliminate plastic we do not need and instead use sustainable alternatives, we should do that. We should support innovation in plastic production where the full life of the plastic is considered and is part of the manufacturing decision-making.

This way we can continue on the path that we are on so that what we make continues to be used and never becomes waste or pollution. Our government is committed to developing and implementing policies that will reduce plastic waste and transition us to a state with a circular economy. We are facing challenges in our recycling industry. Our government is tackling these challenges head on: reducing plastic pollution with a $34.9 million package of recycling reforms in the 2019–20 budget and assisting our councils with $11.3 million to provide immediate financial relief and allow them to invest in infrastructure to improve the quality of our recycling system. This bill delivers to Victoria what we have been hearing loudly and clearly from 96 per cent of Victorians or more: people want this ban. They want these plastic bags out of the shops and out from under the sink, and now they will be gone. I commend the bill to the house.