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Environment and Communications References Committee
Threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia

McNEE, Mr Andrew, Assistant Secretary, Department of the Environment

MURPHY, Mr Paul, Assistant Secretary, Wildlife Trade and Biosecurity Branch, Wildlife Heritage and Marine Division, Department of the Environment

OXLEY, Mr Stephen, First Assistant Secretary, Wildlife Heritage and Marine Division, Department of the Environment

PARRY, Ms Rachel, Assistant Secretary, Reef Branch, Biodiversity Conservation Division, Department of the Environment


CHAIR: I now welcome officers from the Department of the Environment. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in evidence has been provided to you. I will remind witnesses that the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. The committee has the department's submission, and I now invite you to make a short opening statement if you would like to, and at the conclusion of your remarks, I will invite members of the committee to put questions.

Mr Oxley : Thank you. I will take the opportunity to make an opening statement. Marine debris is a complex issue involving several different areas of the Department of the Environment, which are represented here today, and we welcome the opportunity to appear before the committee. In our submission, the department has sought to explain the breadth of activities in which we engage to address the problems caused by marine debris. We as a department act as one agency of the Commonwealth, working alongside other Commonwealth agencies, some of which have made submissions to this inquiry—the states, the Northern Territory, community groups and industry. As you are well aware, jurisdiction from marine debris is shared between the Commonwealth, the states and territories, and indeed, in many respects, the states and territories are the lead.

The basis of the department's policy and engagement on marine debris is the 2003 Key Threatening Process listing under the EPBC Act:

Injury and fatality to vertebrate marine life caused by ingestion of, or entanglement in, harmful marine debris.

This Key Threatening Process listing provides recognition under the EPBC Act that marine debris threatens, or may threaten, the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological community. Species of whales, marine turtles and seabirds are mentioned as particularly affected in this listing.

As a result of the Key Threatening Process listing, the Threat Abatement Plan for the impact of marine debris on vertebrate marine life was made as a legislative instrument under the EPBC Act in 2009. The Threat Abatement Plan outlined the research, management and other actions necessary to reduce the impacts of the listed Key Threatening Process on affected listed threatened species and ecological communities. That answers, in part, a matter raised by Senator Whish-Wilson in the previous discussion with the CSIRO.

In 2014, action under this Threat Abatement Plan was reviewed by the Department of the Environment. The minister, on the advice of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, decided to revise the plan in 2015. The review of action under the 2009 TAP found that significant progress had been made over the life of the plan. But despite that progress the review found that it was not possible to state that the criteria for success had been met. So there had not been a general decline in the presence and extent of harmful marine debris in Australia's marine environment, and there had not been a general decline in the number of marine vertebrates dying and being injured as a result of ingestion and/or entanglement in harmful marine debris—hence the rationale for revising the Threat Abatement Plan.

The revised Threat Abatement Plan is in preparation and we expect it will be considered by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee at its meeting in June of this year. Following consideration by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, the plan will be made available for public comment—we would expect that to be soon after that. The revised plan will address the emerging issues of microplastics and associated chemical contamination, which we do see as things that are very important to pick up in the revised plan.

In August of last year the department held a workshop to seek expert advice in the development of the revised Threat Abatement Plan. Participants included government agencies—including CSIRO—researchers and community and industry groups. There were some key elements of advice provided by the participants in that workshop. Firstly, microplastics—for example, from preproduction pellets and personal care products—should be prevented from entering the marine environment. Prevention of entry into the marine environment is one of the strong and consistent themes of all advice that comes forward in relation to dealing with marine debris.

The second was that the impact of microplastics needs to be better understood. Thirdly, resources should continue to be directed to identifying and reducing the sources of marine debris in Australian waters. This includes ghost nets of international origin, which can cause massive entanglements of turtles, fish and other marine wildlife. Fourthly, improved methods are required to address the large volumes of plastic waste washed ashore on remote northern Australian beaches—I have seen that firsthand, most significantly in the form of very large ghost nets. The current method of burning ghost nets on beaches leaves residual material that generates other environmental risks—for example, preventing marine turtles from nesting.

Fifthly, new technologies—such as improved recycling of waste-to-energy systems—could play an important role in reducing the volumes and impact of marine debris. Of course, there is an economic question as to whether those technologies may be viable now or in the future. Then, sixthly, strategies to identify and reduce waste at source—such as improved stewardship arrangements—need to be pursued in partnership with government and industry.

I might just briefly talk about waste management broadly, because it is an area of particular interest to the committee and it has been talked about at length in submissions and in testimony to the committee. In considering plastic pollution, it is helpful for us all to understand that plastic pollution sits within a broader context of waste management. Waste management in Australia is primarily the responsibility of states and territories, and the role of the Australian government has been and is to ensure that Australia meets its obligations to a number of international agreements through measures implemented by the Commonwealth or by the states.

Through the meeting of the environment ministers' forum, the Australian government is supporting a number of measures targeted at marine plastic pollution. There is the work supporting the national phase-out of lightweight nonbiodegradable plastic shopping bags, which is being led by New South Wales. There is a ministerial round table next week on this issue. We are co-leading with New South Wales on work to secure voluntary agreement from industry to phase out microbeads in rinse-off products by no later than 1 July 2018. And we are facilitating negotiation between industry and governments on the Australian Packaging Covenant, which is a very important piece of work. I will leave it at that point, and I and my colleagues are at the Senate's disposal to answer any questions you have.

CHAIR: I have a couple of questions about your opening statement. In terms of the workshop that you talked about, and you said you had a number of participants, were local government involved in it? I know we have had submissions and discussions from local government about the attempts they have made to try to take plastics out of the environment from their point of view and the costs associated with that. Were they part of the participants list?

Mr Oxley : A quick scan of the list of participants that I have shows that local government does not immediately jump out, but we will provide advice on notice if my advice is incorrect.

CHAIR: Okay. That is a shame because they certainly were very interested in trying to stop at the source some of these plastics getting into their waterways. The other question I have about your opening statement is the issue of the microplastics. You talked about taking them out. How do you stop them, apart from putting a ban on them? How else do you see that we can stop these things from entering the environment?

Mr McNee : Microplastics is an emerging issue, and a very significant one. We are raising a series of issues about how do you actually deal with it? There are multiple sources, as we have heard from CSIRO and others. It is not just plastic particles; it is plastic fibres and a range of other things. They are coming from different types of sources. In some cases how we deal with them will be very different, so we are quite interested in the work that is being done. We are interested in whether, through sewerage treatment, for example, things like microbeads or fibres can be stopped from getting into water courses and subsequently into the environment. As CSIRO indicated, it is very difficult to deal with microplastics once they are in the marine environment, so the best effort we can make is to reduce the chance that they get there.

CHAIR: But isn't banning them the best way to reduce them?

Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting

CHAIR: It is a no-brainer for me, but—

Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting

Mr McNee : From our perspective, the use of plastics is very substantial; there is a very significant amount of plastic production. We expect there will continue to be very significant amounts of plastic production. It is used in a whole range of areas in different parts of the economy. The question is: how can you ensure that plastic is being captured in recycling or recovery systems and that it is not actually making its way out into the environment?

Mr Oxley : And we are seeing an increasingly well-informed consumer movement bringing pressure to bear on both manufacturers and on the retail sector against the use of microplastics in personal care products. A number of significant manufacturers have indicated their intention to phase-out microplastics, or have already stopped using them, and a number of large retail chains have also indicated that their intention is to stop selling products that use microplastics. There is a significant movement towards that outcome at the moment.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Mr McNee, you said it is an emerging problem. What kind of weight was given to this when we started looking at a threat abatement plan from 2002 through to 2009, when the whole process started kicking off? What was the body of evidence back then about—not microbeads per se, but microplastics and their impact?

Mr Murphy : I do not know exactly when the science emerged, but certainly in the original TAP the issue of microplastics was not included. It did not come forward then through us talking to all of the experts and through public submissions. It is something that has come about more recently, and that is why we will be including it in the new threat abatement plan.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: As someone who has been working with a lot of other people for years to try and get this issue in the public eye—obviously education and these kinds of things are going to be really important in solving this problem—I would probably agree with you that it has emerged recently in public attention. But the issue has been there for years; the gyre was discovered a long, long time ago. So, I suppose, constructively, I am interested in the process around the threat abatement plan. You are now going to respond to a new threat abatement plan; is that correct? Could you talk the committee through the process you are going through at the moment? The previous one expired after five years.

Mr Murphy : The threat abatement plan is still current. They stay in place for 10 years but they are reviewed at the five-year mark. So we did the review. Mr Oxley explained in the opening statement that the Threatened Species Scientific Committee recommended that the plan be reviewed, and the minister agreed with that recommendation last year. We held a workshop where the recommendation—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I will stop you for one second because I will probably forget to ask—I am not trying to be rude—but why was it recommended to be reviewed? Is it on the basis that there is a scientific reason to take action? Is that correct?

Mr Murphy : There are criteria for success of the plan, and there were two key criteria that were not met. The first one is, 'a general decline in the presence and extent of harmful marine debris in Australia's marine environment'. That was not met. The second one was, 'a general decline in the number of marine vertebrates dying and being injured as a result of ingestion and/or entanglement in harmful marine debris'. The evidence is that that was not met either. That is the reason the TAP is being reviewed.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You probably do not have the details on you now but could you give the committee some idea of what kind of evidence you are referring to there? Is it some of the more recent studies that are being done—by, for example, CSIRO or other bodies—that led you to that conclusion?

Mr Murphy : It is based on our desktop review; on keeping abreast of the literature. And it has been confirmed in the expert workshop of course that we have held since—revising the TAP.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I am not—

Mr Oxley : Senator, if I can just add—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Sure.

Mr Oxley : The review with the threat abatement plan that we undertook that went to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee and was the basis for recommending to the minister that the plan be revised is a publicly available document, and we can provide the link to that if that would be helpful.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes, that would be. Thank you. I probably should have already read that.

Mr Oxley : There is a lot to read.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: There is. The committee has done a great job putting together a lot of information for us and digesting that for us. We have heard evidence in Sydney and even from CSIRO that the research you are relying on to make these kinds of judgements has mostly come from begging, borrowing, stealing and scrapping to get some funding. It is not your fault. This issue, I think, is emerging in the public eye, but the scientists that have been working in this area have had to find sources of funding, including from philanthropy. Some has been provided by the federal government but not much. I would hope that there is enough research now for this to be taken seriously and to be given more attention by the minister directing the department. Can you give us an overview of the kind of funding the department has put in? I know it is across different programs, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority gets federal funding, but could you give us an overview of the kind of funding we have seen from the federal government in tackling this problem.

Mr Murphy : The government has a Reef 2050 Plan which was an election commitment; $700,000 over two years has been committed for marine debris clean-up activities.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That is just for clean-ups?

Mr Murphy : Yes.

Mr Oxley : So on the search funding side of things, I think it would be better if we were to take that on notice. In our submission, we have touched on a number of different specific activities or lines of research that have been supported by the department. But you are asking a consolidated research funding question, and as a department we will be one of many Commonwealth sources probably.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I would like to actually ask something like: 'Is it bugger-all in the scheme of things?' But I will not ask that question. Obviously, money has gone towards beach clean-ups, and I know from having been involved in lots of them that some of that data does make its way into databases which can be useful for helping us identify sources of debris. However, most people, once they have cleaned a beach, want to go for a surf or have a beer. They are not interested in sitting there and sorting it all out, which I think can be a bit of a problem. You do not have to give us the dollar amounts, but what other programs have we been doing?

Mr Oxley : I could pick an example or two. The couple of examples that I will give relate to the ghost nets, because they are a very significant problem, particularly in our northern Australian waters. We have, with GhostNets Australia, CSIRO, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from the United States and the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries—and this is set out in our submission—done work to reduce the incidence of derelict fishing gear in the Arafura Sea. That has been a collaborative project where we have worked with fishers, port authorities, local communities and stakeholders within key fishing communities in eastern Indonesia to identify the reasons for gear loss and, through that identification, to identify solutions. It is one of those things where the more work that we can do at the preventive end the better is the outcome.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Has that program come to an end?

CHAIR: I understand the GhostNets Australia program has now ceased. You talk about how good the program was and the effect it had, but that program has now been ceased.

Mr Oxley : I spoke about the work that we did with GhostNets Australia in Indonesia specifically. Yes, my understanding is that the funding for GhostNets Australia is no longer available.

CHAIR: Is there a replacement program to deal with that issue?

Mr Oxley : Not to my knowledge, in terms of a like-for-like program. Certainly, it is covered in, I think, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority's submission to the Senate. There is a lot of work that is done between AFMA, Border Protection Command and the Department of the Environment, in the guise of Parks Australia, around seeking to collect or pick up ghost nets, particularly in northern Australian waters. So there is an active, on-water national government presence that is focused on ghost net removal.

CHAIR: But there is no specific funding for that purpose.

Mr Oxley : It is not directed specifically to GhostNets Australia, and it would be reasonable to characterise it as opportunistic, but it is quite a comprehensive program—which AFMA summarised in its submission, if I am recalling it correctly—where, if the scale of the nets or what have you is beyond the capacity of customs vessels, for example, to pick up and take back to shore for disposal, then commercial contractors will from time to time be engaged for that purpose. They will put satellite tags on nets so that they can be relocated, and then someone will come and do the removal.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You have said broadly that the advice was that the threat abatement plan had not worked in areas for abating marine pollution. Can you give the committee an idea of what kinds of initiatives you will be looking at for the next five years, in terms of tackling the problem—whether it is ingestion or entanglement? Are you including microplastics in the new abatement plan?

Mr Murphy : I think we touched on this before. At the expert workshop, the key recommendations were to do with microplastics and their impacts, particularly identifying the source—preproduction pellets and personal care products—and trying to take actions that would address that. The impact of microplastics, generally, needs to be better understood. Resources should continue to be directed to identifying and reducing the sources of marine debris in Australian waters. As you know, the most important thing, in a way, is to be able to attack it at the source.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Just as a matter of interest, do they make recommendations about the kind of funding that might be needed to tackle the gaps in our understanding of these things? Is it at that level of detail?

Mr Murphy : Not specifically. These are the experts saying these are the actions that should be taken, and we are now working on preparing the plan by turning those broader aims into more specific actions and prioritising the plan.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So, that is your job too? It is your job to put the meat around the bones in terms of what is needed?

Mr Murphy : As a draft, and then we take that to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee. We are aiming to do that in June this year. Once they are happy with it, it will be released for public submission as a draft for three months.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Finally, directly in relation to this same question, will those recommendations include issues around the packaging covenant in terms of increased recycling and other ways of reducing plastic pollution at its source?

Mr Oxley : I think it is just a little early for us to be speculating on the specific detail of what will be in the threat abatement plan, but Mr McNee may wish to provide a comment on the current state of play in relation to the packaging covenant if that would be helpful.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Perhaps I could ask you theoretically, before Mr McNee answers that, whether increased recycling rates, for example, would be something that you would think would be important for a threat abatement plan.

Mr Oxley : Increased recycling rates would be, to my way of thinking—if it is rates and it is based on a known volume of material that is available for recycling or other disposal of a reduced—a pretty good indicator prospectively of success over time. It would be a useful broad indicator.

Mr McNee : I will just note that the Australian Packaging Covenant is also in essence under review. Ministers have asked us to look at a refresh for that, so we are currently in discussion between jurisdictions and industry. So there is an opportunity to bring some of these ideas together, and certainly with new priorities.

Senator SINGH: I just need to understand, from your answer just then, Mr Oxley, about the new threat abatement plan. Will the new threat abatement plan have the threat to Australia's marine wildlife that is posed by plastics per se as a key component?

Mr Oxley : Plastics will be a key theme in the new threat abatement plan, based on all the evidence in front of us and the feedback we have received and the consultation we have done with the scientific community, stakeholder groups, industry and so on. It is a key issue.

Senator SINGH: Right. It is definite, which is good. Dr de Brouwer's cover letter just said that it was potential inclusion, so I just wanted to make sure it was not potential but a reality—that it will be. Regarding the questions earlier from the chair about the GhostNets Australia program, why did that program cease?

Mr Oxley : The program ceased essentially because it was a time limited program. It was funded through the Natural Heritage Trust. As with all the activity that is funded by the Natural Heritage Trust, there are ongoing pressures and competing priorities for a finite resource that is available, and relative to all the other things that the Natural Heritage Trust has to fund. It is my understanding that when that program concluded there was not space in the budget to support the continuation of the program.

Senator SINGH: So, lack of funding.

Mr Oxley : The competition priorities for the available expenditure—we have a budget that we have to work within.

CHAIR: No money.

Senator SINGH: Yes, I think that is the code.

Mr Oxley : Of course.

Senator SINGH: The department's website, when you go to 'Marine debris', still has listed the former Labor government's Caring for our Country initiative as the funding mechanism for a range of on-ground activities under the plan. It includes:

a series of 'ghost net' clean up projects across northern Australia, with funding provided over five years commencing in 2009/10 under the Working On Country program;

regional and local marine debris monitoring and cleanup …

Caring for our Country no longer exists, obviously through decisions taken by this government. So why is that still on the website?

Mr Oxley : It is not unusual for such an historic chronology of expenditure over time across governments to be still present on a department's website. We have more than 50,000 web pages, I think. I would suggest that this is probably one that has not gone up for review in recent times. I can take on notice whether there is a specific reason, but I suspect it is just the amount of time it takes to review a massive amount of web content.

Senator SINGH: It is 2016, though, and it refers to 2009-10 funding. That is about six years ago now. I know it takes time, but six years is a long time.

Mr Oxley : Sure, but is the public interest served by having a deeper record of past expenditure available? Probably yes.

Senator SINGH: Then, what has replaced it as a funding mechanism for marine debris mitigation?

Mr Oxley : There are a range of existing programs whereby grants are provided to various organisations, and some of their activity relates to marine debris. There are a number of Green Army projects of which marine debris collection and so on are a component. There will be activities that are being funded through the Natural Heritage Trust and regional natural resource management groups that have marine debris as a component. I believe there are also some specific activities in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park around this theme. So, as is similarly the case with the work we do around recovery of threatened species, we try to use the wherewithal of all the programs we have at our disposal in the Department of the Environment to focus on areas of particular concern, and marine debris is one of them.

Senator SINGH: So, unlike the GhostNets program and those listed on the out-of-date 'Marine debris' part of the department's website, under Caring for our Country, there is not any specific program now. You are saying it has kind of dispersed among different parts of the department and its agencies. Is that what you are saying?

Ms Parry : We do have a $700,000 Reef Trust project spread across 2014-16—

Senator SINGH: Yes, I know about the Reef Trust.

Ms Parry : specifically focused on marine debris, and that is delivered through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. There is also a National Environmental Science Program, a round 1 research project dedicated to marine debris. That is a one-year research project. And there are also components of GPRMPA's Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements that have a focus on marine debris. That is not the entire focus of TUMRAs, but they do have a marine debris component to them. As well, the Working on Country program areas delivered through the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet have a marine debris focus through the Indigenous rangers program.

Senator SINGH: Can you tell me whether funding on marine debris mitigation has decreased or increased since the Caring for our Country initiative?

Mr Oxley : We do not have that information readily at our disposal, so we will take that one on notice and provide an answer to the committee.

Senator SINGH: I just want to go to the former Standing Council on Environment and Water—SCEW—activities pertaining to marine pollution. There is an out-of-date website that still exists—the former SCEW website—and it has links that make it clear that SCEW was revoked, in 2013. So, where do interested parties that were part of that council make-up and the like go now if they want information about marine debris, specifically as it related to the role that they had under SCEW?

Mr Oxley : You are right: the ministerial council—the environment ministers' council—was removed in 2013, and with it went the Standing Council on Environment and Water, which was the senior officials' committee that supported ministers. In the absence of there being a formal ministerial council, Minister Hunt and his state and territory colleagues have continued to meet as a body that has become known as the meeting of environment ministers, and they meet on a reasonably regular basis, at least a couple of times a year, and there is a whole senior officials' network and committee system, essentially, that sits behind it and provides advice to ministers. So, while the old ministerial council does not exist in name any longer, ministers across the nation saw the value in continuing engagement around key areas of environment protection and biodiversity conservation, and established a less formal but still heavily engaged means of discussing those issues.

Senator SINGH: How do they discuss those issues, now that the council is defunct and the website—

Mr Oxley : Departments work together to—

Senator SINGH: But on marine debris, which obviously this is about?

Mr Oxley : If the ministers were to work on marine debris specifically, they would ask officials to—

Senator SINGH: Yes, but that is hypothetical, Mr Oxley. I am asking how they do, not if they do. How do they?

Mr Oxley : The principal area of focus is around packaging and waste, and Mr McNee might like to just provide some advice as to what exactly is going on in relation to those issues now.

Mr McNee : There are three areas of activity that the meeting of environment ministers has considered over the last two years. It has looked very closely at the microbeads issue and has given its support for the work that New South Wales and the Commonwealth are now pursuing in terms of a voluntary industry arrangement to phase out microbeads. It has also looked at the issue of plastic bags in the environment and a national phase-down, and I think, as Mr Oxley mentioned, there is a meeting, including ministers, next week in Sydney that is going to look at the lessons from those jurisdictions that have adopted bans and at how that might proceed in the future. As I mentioned to Senator Whish-Wilson, the meeting of environment ministers has also asked for a refresh of the Australian Packaging Covenant, and that is being considered at the moment.

Senator SINGH: Thank you; that is useful. I refer you to an older document on the department's website. It was actually a 2009 document: the APEC Marine Resources Conservation Working Group's Understanding the economic benefits and costs of controlling marine debris in the APEC region. That found that the estimated total cost of marine debris in the APEC region totalled some US$1.265 billion a year, and that the impact to APEC's tourism sector was US$622 million a year, and it goes on to talk about the impact on the fishing and shipping industries and so on. Are you in a position to outline to the committee whether those figures have increased or decreased since 2009?

Mr Oxley : No, we are not in a position to do that.

Senator SINGH: Do you have any estimate of the damage from marine debris on Australia's tourism, fishing and shipping industries annually? Do you keep those types of figures?

Mr Oxley : I am not aware if that sort of analysis has been done, but I am happy to take it on notice and, if we can identify any, to bring it to the attention of the committee.

Senator BACK: Thanks very much for your submission. Just give me a quick summary of where we are with the threat abatement plan. Is it complete?

Mr Oxley : The threat abatement plan is currently being revised, so a new version is being written. That new version will go to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee in the middle of this year. The Threatened Species Scientific Committee is a statutory advisory committee to the Minister for the Environment. If the Threatened Species Scientific Committee is satisfied with that, it will then go to the minister and it will be released for a three-month public consultation period.

Senator BACK: Can you give us some indication of the likely time frame it would take the threatened species committee to examine the draft?

Mr Oxley : They meet four times a year for four or five days, and if we have done a good job of it—and I am confident that we will have—they will sign it off or require some minor adjustments. Usually it would just be a matter of weeks, at the most, between them considering it and it being ready for public consultation.

Senator BACK: Subject to all that being approved, if and when the minister has signed off on it, what resources are in place to see it implemented?

Mr Oxley : There is not a dedicated available amount of funding for implementation of this or any other threat abatement plan.

Senator BACK: As part of the plan process, do you recommend to the threatened species group—for onward passage to the minister—some form of implementation plan together with funding for that implementation plan?

Mr Murphy : Not specifically. The plan identifies the priorities for research and management, and helps guide, at the national level, all the researchers and management actions. People applying for funds, whether it be state federally, can draw on those priority actions from the threat abatement plan.

Senator BACK: Does the plan identify those different parties who you would prefer would implement the different sectors of the plan itself?

Mr Oxley : It is not an implementation plan in those terms. It is a guide—

Senator BACK: Right. So how do we move from the threat abatement plan to the implementation plan? Is that done at ministerial level or back to yourselves for direction?

Mr Oxley : It could be done at ministerial level. That would generally be supported by advice from the department. It could be done through the meeting of environment ministers. There are many different pathways.

Senator BACK: It could be a recommendation that COAG take it on board?

Mr Oxley : Yes, it could be.

Senator BACK: This committee—this member, anyhow—wants to see that if and when this excellent plan is approved and signed off, that we move quickly to implementation. Self-interest drives most people, and we have heard about the possible effects on human health coming up from plankton to fish to humans. I would see this as being a very significant driver of drawing the attention of the wider community to the risks attendant from marine plastics. Can you tell us whether there is anything at all in the threat abatement plan that speaks to the possible impact on human health of microplastics—be it micro-plastic beads et cetera?

Mr Oxley : It is too early to indicate whether that is something that will be included in the plan. We are hearing testimony, evidence and submissions that are indicating that there are concerns around that. We would be very happy to reflect on whether that is something that we should in fact include in the plan itself. It is important, though, that we all understand the purpose of the threat abatement plan, the key threatening process as it is currently articulated, which is outlined through the research management and other actions necessary to reduce the impacts of the listed key threatening process—in this case, the ingestion and entanglement of marine debris—on affected listed threatened species and ecological communities. In the normal course of events, this threat abatement plan would not be talking about the human impacts, but that, nonetheless, is significant and important context for this piece of work.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That was my question. I did not think it related to it.

Senator BACK: It is in the context, isn't it, of directing the attention of the community? We heard evidence last week of some companies that are switched into this and some governments that are switched in, and others of them totally ignoring it. I am thinking to myself, 'How do you actually direct the attention of those organisations that are not yet focused on the need to act?' It seems to me that if there is a link to human health, that is a very strong motivator.

Senator BULLOCK: I was happy to get the last of that question; I was intrigued by the response. Mr Oxley, I noticed you came in a little bit after the CSIRO started giving their evidence, and I cannot recall whether you were here when we were talking about the fact that most of the rubbish on the east coast is locally produced, but on the west coast we get a lot of our plastics from international sources. I made the point that there is a lot of remote coastline in Western Australia and indeed, in your submission, you say that there are particular problems associated with dealing with this material in remote areas. Have you got any solutions for us for that?

Mr Oxley : I think, realistically, the solution is to cut off the supply at source. That is the consistent argument that I think all of the participants and contributors to this inquiry—

Senator BULLOCK: CSIRO were not too clear on where the source was for the West Australian material.

Mr Oxley : Yes; they said that they did not have immediately at their disposal that information, and I would say that we would be in the same circumstance. Somewhere, there is some evidence that is before the committee, if I understand correctly, that says that if we could actually deal with land-based sources of pollution in Indonesia, in the Philippines, in Malaysia, and in Vietnam—and I think one other country; Thailand—that we would make very, very significant inroads into cutting off the supply of marine debris at source. Certainly, on the west coast of Australia, my understanding is that a lot of that is floating in from land-based sources originally, north of Australia—

Senator BULLOCK: Let us imagine for a moment that that solution is a bit over the horizon, so to speak. How do we deal with the stuff that sits here?

Mr Oxley : I do not think there is any easy answer to that, Senator, because you are talking about a pollution load, a marine debris load, that is spread across a huge coastal area and a huge marine environment, and there is not going to be an economic or efficient way to capture and collect all of that material. So, at some level, it is a present problem. That plastic is there; it is going to degrade; it is going to find its way into the marine and coastal ecosystems in some way. The bigger challenge is to—

Senator BULLOCK: Could I interrupt you there, please? In your submission, you did draw attention, for example, to small-scale waste-to-energy systems, such as those used in the UConn in a way. That and other possible solutions was what I was inviting you to comment on, rather than saying it is too hard.

Mr Oxley : We are at the early stages of understanding the opportunity and the economics in terms of those systems. We certainly, as a department, think that there is value and merit in exploring them and encouraging investment in waste-to-energy. It would only ever be able to be done at a localised level, and you would need the base adequate supply of the raw material, as in the plastics, in order to enable it. It is not something that we as a department have been heavily focused on, but it is something we are aware of, and it is something that we think merits further exploration.

Senator BULLOCK: Any other bright ideas?

Mr Oxley : No. It all comes back to stopping it at source.

CHAIR: Senator Whish-Wilson, we are over time, but if you have two very quick questions, I am happy to entertain you.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I cannot guarantee they will be very quick, but I only have two and they relate directly to what Senator Bullock was asking about.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: The World Economic Forum recently issued a global call to arms, to governments around the world, to try and solve these things at source. But they have said it is actually about packaging and design of packaging, recycling rates, putting a value on rubbish so it is collected. We know we can do these kinds of things in Australia—and of course, we would like to see our regional neighbours do it. I have been in Indonesia where local governors have paid a small fee for each plastic bag, and they get collected and they do not go into the ocean—so there are ways of actually solving this problem. How important is a packaging covenant in this country to the solution? Is it connected to the threat abatement plan as well? I did broadly ask Mr Oxley about recycling rates earlier, but how do we actually tackle this at a packaging covenant level?

Mr McNee : I can probably make some comments about the covenant and the significance of that. As Mr Oxley has mentioned, the abatement plan is in development. As to whether or not it eventually references the Packaging Covenant we do not know. You are correct in the sense that the covenant is an initiative which is very much focused on sustainable packaging. In the past it has focused on design, recycling rate recovery and reducing the actual amount of packaging that is there. Part of the work that we are doing in the refresh now is looking at whether those aims can be more refined and perhaps looking at things that were mentioned in the World Economic Forum paper, like looking more deeply across the supply chain and looking more particularly at specific innovation in design to ensure that not only is there less packaging but also packaging is more capable of going into either recovery or recycling systems. It is an important element, but there are a range of activities occurring around packaging. Some of them are driven by global trends and some of them are driven by economics. We will be looking to integrate those activities together.

Mr Oxley : In terms of the second part of the question about referencing it in the threat abatement plan itself, we were just having a quick discussion behind and there is no reason why we would not in some way seek to underline the significance or importance of the Packaging Covenant in the threat abatement plan.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: What I was specifically interested in was this: would the Packaging Covenant look at the externalities, the risks, associated with things like microplastics that are included in the TAP? Is that kind of cost included in the equation when we are looking at reducing packaging or changing packaging or other initiatives for recycling? Is this big emerging issue of marine plastics discussed at the Packaging Covenant level?

Mr McNee : In the conversations that are happening at the moment the information that is now available in relation to microplastics is an important part of that. The Packaging Covenant is a tool. It happens to be a tool that engages about 1,000 industry representatives in a conversation, but there are a range of other activities where microplastics is a critical issue. It is a matter of ensuring that in all of those we have the best information to work out what the appropriate solutions might be.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: In relation to the Packaging Covenant, participation is voluntary. We heard evidence that even some of the suggested fines and penalties have not been implemented. We do not have time, unfortunately, to go into a lot of the criticisms we have been given about the Packaging Covenant. I am not saying it is your fault at all, but the issue for me is whether government has a role in providing mandatory legislation or regulations around bans of plastic products or recycling schemes like container deposit schemes. I have been involved in it for years and it is despairing to think about how much more plastic is going to go in the ocean. I think we have run out of time with voluntary schemes. They have not worked in the past. Would you like to comment on whether you think it is realistic that the industry would accept mandatory schemes such as container deposit schemes?

Mr Oxley : I think you are taking us into the hypotheticals in this space, Senator.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I definitely am, yes; deliberately.

Mr Oxley : I do not think we can go there, as much as you would love us to.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: All right. Well, please do something about the problem.

Mr Oxley : Understood, Senator.

CHAIR: We are over time so I thank you for your attendance and your submission.