As an island continent, famously ‘girt by sea’, we are a nation and a people who have been shaped by the oceans that are around us. Our sunny coastline is understandably a source of wonderment for both Australians and visitors alike. Our pattern of settlement has hugged our bays and our harbours. In the waters beyond, our oceans are home to some of the richest and most important ecosystems on the planet. It is therefore not surprising that Australians are passionate about protecting our marine environment. It is an issue I feeling strongly about and, in a different life, I was proud to have had the opportunity to help develop Australia’s first national oceans policy, which was released by the Howard government.

At times the vastness of our oceans have allowed us to think they are an infinite resource, yet we have learned that many marine ecosystems are as fragile as those on land. We are now becoming particularly aware that our oceans are under threat from pollution, including the impact of plastic waste and debris. In Australia, hundreds of thousands have tuned into the ABC’s War on Waste, which highlighted our own impact on the marine environment. In the documentary A Plastic Ocean which screened in this building a year ago we graphically witnessed the impact of plastics on animals, including magnificent birds or turtles which had eaten plastic items, eventually reaching the point where their stomachs had become hardened masses of almost solid waste.

Of course, plastics have become an indispensable part of human existence. Plastic has kept our food safe, reduced other kinds of waste and made the transportation of goods more affordable to large populations. Plastic remains an incredible invention. Yet, unfortunately, we have failed to effectively mitigate against plastic waste on many occasions. It is estimated, for example, that at least eight million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean each year. This is the equivalent of a garbage truck offloading its contents into the ocean every minute of every day. Much of the plastic entering our ocean is from packaging. We know that around the world something like a third of plastic packaging escapes collection systems. Some will litter the land, while much will enter our seas. Often they are single-use plastic products which are used on average for 12 minutes and yet can take hundreds of years to degrade.

Our communities are rightly seeking action from government and industry, and we will be failing Australians if we in this parliament don’t ensure that we’re reacting to respond to those concerns. Australia is not one of the world’s major contributors to plastics in our oceans, yet we can set an example and at the same time help keep our own coastline relatively pristine. We can also show international leadership in a region of the world where much of the problem is sourced. For example, 25 per cent of plastic marine pollution comes from 10 major river systems and eight of them are in Asia.

Domestically the federal government is working with the states to innovate and improve their recycling. Earlier this year, environment ministers agreed to a 100 per cent target of Australian packaging being recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. They have agreed to work with industry to increase their recycle content of goods purchased by government and the private sector. Cooperative work with industry has seen almost all microbeads removed from products sold on Australian shelves, although 100 per cent is yet to be achieved. Most states have introduced bans on single-use shopping bags and introduced container deposit legislation. To date, industry and retailers have been ready partners in the process. This is preferable and welcome. Government should not, however, forgo the option of regulating if voluntary action fails, particularly to lift requirements for recycled content or to entirely eliminate the use of microbeads or to phase out products like polystyrene. We need New South Wales to join the ban on single-use plastic bags and Victoria to implement its own container deposit legislation.

But our role can be just as important internationally. The United Kingdom has proven itself a leader in addressing what is a global problem. We can do the same in our region in Asia and the Pacific. Our goal should be a regional marine plastics compact, and our efforts through both our aid and environmental programs should go to supporting other nations to implement solutions. There is also scope for Australia to become a leader in recycling technology and the development of bio-benign plastic products, particularly those which can biodegrade in the marine environment. Our goal must be to create a more circular economy for plastic products, which not only makes environmental sense but offers economic advantages as well. Our marine environment, which is just so precious to all Australians, is worth that battle.