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Tuesday, 2 April 2019
Page: 14479


Dr PHELPS (Wentworth) (16:15): Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of our time. If we don't get it right, our children will pay the price. We may already be paying the costs. Climate change and the environment are top-of-mind issues for the people in my electorate of Wentworth and also of great concern to Australians everywhere. This will be a climate change and environment election, and the time to act is now.

Just this morning I met with Cassy Faux and Lauren McGrow, who were victims of the recent Tasmanian bushfires. When you also consider that there were floods in Queensland, prolonged drought, storms and a million dead fish at Menindee on the Darling River, with a dramatic drop in temperature following a period of very hot weather, it seems fair to say that we are seeing a rise in the prevalence of extreme weather events. I have spoken a number of times in this House about the need for urgent climate change action. The cost of inaction will be significant.

An integral part of the climate argument is the impact on our environment. Today I would like to speak about the growing problem of ocean plastics. In the past fortnight we heard about a whale in the Philippines that starved to death, having ingested 40 kilograms of plastics. Forty kilograms is an enormous amount. This was a wake-up call to all of us that we need to take action to limit the amount of plastic that is dumped into rivers and oceans worldwide.

The global population is living, working and vacationing along the coast. Coastal populations stand in the front row of the greatest plastic waste tide we have ever faced. According to Boomerang Alliance, globally 275 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated each year and in 2016 over nine million tonnes of plastic entered the world's oceans. Ocean currents have formed five gigantic, slow-moving whirlpools, where the plastic collects, called gyres. Most of the plastic debris sinks or remains in the gyres, but a significant percentage remains in oceans, where it is a threat to sea life, or washes onto our coastlines daily.

I volunteered with Clean Up Australia this year. You could not miss the presence of plastic on our shoreline. CSIRO recently completed a survey that found that three-quarters of the rubbish along Australia's coast is plastic. Most of it comes from Australian sources, not the high seas. Debris is concentrated near our cities. CSIRO also commented that Australia is probably a net exporter of debris to some neighbouring marine regions and surrounding countries. That is not the sort of export reputation that we should have.

Australians consume over three million tonnes of plastic products and packaging each year but recycle less than 10 per cent of the plastics we use in Australia. Litter comprises 60 per cent of all marine plastic pollution, including around 420 million plastic bottles, another 200 million of other pieces of plastic packaging, 180 million plastic bags, 10 million plastic products and over 11 billion synthetic cigarette butts. After sunlight photodegrades the plastic into small pieces, aquatic life and seabirds mistake these fragments for food and ingest them. It's estimated that globally over one million seabirds and over 100,000 mammals die every year as a result of plastic. These creatures die through ingestion, mistaking it as food, or from entanglement in plastic items. It's difficult to know the exact figures, but a 2012 report from the Worldwide Society for the Protection of Animals indicated that between 57,000 and 135,000 whales are entangled in plastic marine debris.

Over 200 species are directly affected by marine plastic pollution, with 96 per cent of all marine biodiversity being vulnerable to the ingestion of these microplastics. While all plastic debris is dangerous to the environment, the threats escalate as plastic fragments into increasingly small pieces and enters the marine food chain and, in turn, our diet. These tiny microplastic particles are often mistaken as food, and, as latest research suggests, they are being ingested at very high levels. The CSIRO, for example, has found that 90 per cent of seabirds around the world have ingested plastic, and even plankton—the basic element of the marine food chain—has been observed ingesting microplastic. The prevalence of microplastic being ingested by our sea life is a major concern which has rapidly become one of the major threats to marine biodiversity. Humans are not immune from these effects. It is estimated that people who consume average amounts of seafood are ingesting approximately 11,000 particles of plastics each year.

The Great Barrier Reef outlook report 2014 identified marine debris and plastics as major threats to the health of the reef. It was found that 683,000 items of marine debris were recovered within the marine park between 2008 and 2014. It's well known that plastics entering the world's oceans are having a huge impact on our marine life. But they also have far-reaching impacts on human health and on our economy. A UNEP 2014 report identifies that plastics finding their way into the world's oceans cost approximately $17.3 billion per year in environmental damage to marine ecosystems, and the total natural capital cost of plastics used in the consumer goods industry estimates at more than $99 billion per year. When the life span of products and packaging is taken into account, the annualised overall natural capital cost to the consumer goods sector is $35 billion, with the largest contributors being food, nondurable household goods, soft drinks and retail. Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, APEC, estimates that the cost to the tourism, fishing and shipping industries was $1.6 billion in our region alone. Local authorities have to bear the cost of cleaning up plastic litter from beaches, maintaining litter traps and bins and managing landfill. Managing waste is an enormous cost burden on local councils, who have diminishing options for recycling and eliminating plastic waste. The European Union is taking the initiative. Single-use plastic items such as straws, forks and knives, as well as cotton buds, will be banned in the European Union by 2021. In Germany, a new packaging law will come into effect on 1 January, which aims to improve recycling and reduce packaging waste.

If we fail to clean up the plastic and don't stop the continued pollution of the oceans, we are facing the potential extinction of many sea life species and the interruption of the entire marine ecosystem, as well as a depletion of our precious food stocks. The establishment of a national environment protection agency would be a positive start. It is time to act now. I will be speaking about this subject at the upcoming Bondi Ocean Lovers Festival in April, and I encourage anyone who cares about our marine environment to attend. I urge the Australian government to take decisive action by developing policy and dedicating funding to combat this environmental threat.