Q&A with NSW Environment Minister James Griffin

As NSW enters the next stage of its phase-out of single-use plastics, NSW Environment Minister James Griffin shared his views about plastic pollution, biodiversity and natural capital with the Australian Retailers Association.

 

Minister thanks for your time today and thanks for your leadership on the phase-out of single-use plastics. The NSW approach is aspirational but pragmatic. Can you talk to us about the plastic bans that have already come into place, what’s the longer-term view of plastics?  

Q1. Why is it important that we take action on single-use plastic now?

I’ll give an example from my electorate of Manly. Manly Cove is one of our most beautiful Sydney Harbour beaches, but it’s also one of our most plastic-polluted beaches.

The Australian Microplastic Assessment Project found Manly Cove is among the worst beaches in the country for microplastic pollution, with research finding more than 850 pieces of microplastic per square metre.

This is exactly why we must end our reliance on single-use plastic. The NSW single-use plastic bans are critical for our environment, and they mark the beginning of our massive shift away from single-use plastic.

About 95 per cent of the litter on beaches and waterways comes from suburban streets, and the vast majority of that litter is single-use plastic.

Single-use plastic items and packaging make up 60 per cent of all litter in NSW.

The bans this year will prevent 2.7 billion items of plastic litter from entering the environment over the next 20 years.

So, from 1 November, we’ve banned single-use items including:

  • plastic straws, stirrers, cutlery, plates, bowls and cotton buds
  • food ware and cups made from expanded polystyrene
  • rinse-off personal care products containing plastic microbeads.

This comes after we already banned lightweight single-use plastic bags in June.

 

Q2. Why didn’t you ban all plastic bags? Is there a plan to eventually ban the thicker plastic bags that have replaced lightweight ones?

The banned items have been chosen because they are highly littered, at approximately 20 times the rate of other plastics, and have readily available sustainable alternatives.

The banned items are largely consistent with a list of items for phase out agreed to by the federal, state and territory environment ministers in April 2021.

Under the NSW Plastics Action Plan, the NSW Government has committed to review further items such as oxo-degradable plastics, cups (including lids), fruit stickers, heavyweight shopping bags, barrier and produce bags, in 2024 to determine whether phasing out is appropriate at that time.

It’s fantastic to see large retailers have already announced the complete removal of plastic shopping bags by mid-2023.

 

Q3. Thanks Minister, there certainly are some exciting projects in the pipeline to reduce single-use plastics waste in NSW. Another area NSW has excelled in is the implementation of the Container Deposit Scheme. I note there are some upcoming changes to this scheme, could you explain these changes and what is next for the program which is held in such high regard nationally.

The fact that more than eight billion containers having already gone through the Return and Earn scheme since it began in 2017 speaks volumes about just how wildly popular the scheme is.

Now we want to take it even further with glass wine and spirits bottles, as well as larger containers.

This planned expansion of the scheme would see an additional 400 million eligible bottles recycled each year, including 233 million glass bottles.

And remember, this began as tool to reduce litter and has now grown into an initiative that 80 per cent of NSW adults have participated in.

Not only has Return and Earn reduced drink container litter by a massive 52 per cent, it has delivered $800 million in refunds to the people of NSW and more than $35 million in donations to community groups and charities.

Expanding Return and Earn is a win for the environment, a win for communities and a win for businesses.

It will boost recycling rates, reduce landfill, and supercharge our push towards a circular economy.

 

Q4. Minister, you recently spoke at the AARES Natural Capital Symposium. In your address you mentioned that much of our economic system places no value on the vital services that nature provides. What is the NSW Government doing to prevent economic loss if environmental challenges are not urgently addressed?

The same economic system that has delivered wealth and prosperity to the people of this state for generations has a blind spot for nature and the services it provides.

Natural capital is a way of thinking about nature in much the same way as traditional capital – if we invest in nature, it creates value, and if we degrade it, its value depreciates.

Yet, much of our economic system places no value on these vital services that nature provides.

There is an enormous amount of interest in natural capital from all quarters of the community. The interest is overwhelming – and has grown exponentially in only a few short years… and perhaps this is why:

  • In 2020, the World Economic Forum found that more than 50 per cent of global GDP was nature dependent.
  • The possibility of biodiversity and ecosystem collapse in is one of the top five risks facing the world this decade.
  • And Australia ranks fifth highest on a list of 140 countries that will experience economic loss if environmental challenges are not urgently addressed.

The scale of the challenge and the size of the consequences of inaction – for the climate, for our environment, and for the way we live – is simply too big to ignore.

As a responsible government, we’re developing a suite of natural capital initiatives to maintain our natural assets, and actually quantify the benefits and value that conservation has for us as a society.

Through our Biodiversity Conservation Trust (BCT), we already have a working example of natural capital in place, which is working to conserve critical habitats.

The BCT is doing fantastic work, protecting hundreds of species through more than 22-hundred private land conservation agreements which cover more than 2.2 million hectares of land in NSW.

But there’s much more we can do to boost natural capital investment – and I’ll have more exciting news in this space soon.

 

Q5. Thanks Minister, it is clear we need to continue looking for nature-based solutions to the climate crisis. Can you talk to us about the 30/30 goal and what that might mean for the NSW community?

NSW is establishing a panel of eminent Australians to provide advice by mid-2023 on how NSW can contribute to the national goal to protect at least 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030.

This is an ambitious target and we’ll contribute in a way that’s equitable, science-based and cost-effective so that we can optimise environmental, social and economic benefits for everyone in NSW.

We already have a strong track record of protecting land in perpetuity, and I’ll make sure that any national level agreements capture the significant protections we’ve already delivered on our public and private estates.

For example, 10.2 per cent of the landmass in NSW is protected as part of the national parks estate, or through in-perpetuity private land conservation agreements, which is a fantastic achievement already.

 

Q6. Recently we saw that you had renamed Ben Boyd National Park to Beowa National Park, to support the indigenous community. Reconciliation is really important to us at the ARA, having recently launched our first Reconciliation Action Plan. Can you talk me through that change and the reasons you felt it was important to do so?

Renaming Ben Boyd National Park to Beowa National Park is a significant moment for NSW, and yet another step towards reconciliation.

The Aboriginal community in this area called for us to rename the park because of Boyd’s shocking legacy of blackbirding.

After extensive consultation with more than 60 representatives from the Aboriginal and South Sea Islander community, we listened and learned, and a new, culturally-appropriate name for this magnificent national park was chosen.

The name ‘Beowa’ celebrates the important connection between the park’s coastline and the spiritual lives of its first inhabitants, as well as their beliefs and cultural practices associated with the ocean, in particular orcas.

I’m proud that we’ve taken this step and I’d like to thank the Traditional Custodians for their open involvement in the renaming process.

 

Thanks for your time Minister. Our members can find more information on our website.  

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