East Hope Island, about 35km south-east of Cooktown, is one of the prettiest small tropical islands in the world. It is ringed with coral and a white-sand beach with rich bird and fish life. You can walk around it in 15 minutes, which I did on World Environment Day this week.
But something stood out on that pristine beach: a plastic soft-drink bottle.
Humans put eight million tonnes of plastic into the ocean each year. It never fully breaks down, except to small indestructible beads. Birds, fish, turtles and dolphins eat the plastic, but cannot digest it. It fills their stomachs so there is no room for food and they starve to death.
Eventually, plastic will kill so much of the fish resources of the ocean that people who depend on it will also starve to death.
We are fouling our own nest and we can neither build nor move to a new one.
Carbon in the atmosphere and plastic in the ocean must be the two most important issues facing humans. Yet our political leaders still put jobs and growth first.
I put the plastic bottle in the dinghy and recalled a job I had at the end of Year 12 at a then family-owned soft-drink factory in Beechworth. Used empty glass bottles came in by the truckload and I had to sort them: by size and type.
You never saw empty glass soft-drink bottles littlering the environment in the 1960s. They carried a 10-cent deposit, so kids collected them up and cashed them in.
For the soft-drink industry it was cheaper to wash and reuse rather than make new bottles.
Then single-use plastic bottles became cheaper than glass. The economic incentive for container return disappeared, and so did deposits. South Australia reintroduced a container deposit scheme in the 1970s. It remains at 10 cents.
Forty years later, NSW began a scheme. The ACT and Queensland schemes will start next month and Western Australia next year.
All of the schemes are pitifully inadequate and marred by silly conditions about cans being uncrushed and bottles having the original label.
According to the Reserve Banks inflation calculator, 10 cents in 1968 would now be worth $1.22. That is where we need to be – at least $1 or $1.50 deposit per container.
That plastic bottle would not have been left on the beach at East Hope Island with such a deposit. (It had not been washed up because it was on the leeward side of the island.) If you can carry plastic in to a marine national park, you can carry it out. As it happens, I am carrying that bottle out and I hope I have saved some creature from starvation.
Plastic is the enemy. Eight billion tonnes of it have gone into the environment since the 1950s.
Sure, there would be some transitioning problems with old containers upon which no deposit had been paid. But a government subsidy to cover it for a year would do the trick. By then, at $1 or $1.50 a container, nearly every one would have been scooped up.
Governments spend a huge amount on litter now. Those costs would fall.
However, such is the lobbying power of the beverage industry that governments meekly gave in, imposing a deposit so small as to be almost meaningless and with no mechanism to get pre-scheme plastic bottles out of the environment.
Similarly, the lobbying power of the beverage industry has ensured that no tax has been imposed upon sugar to drive up the price of soft drinks that have more sugar in them. That in turn would reduce sugar consumption and the obesity epidemic.
The plastic bottle on East Hope Island symbolises the power of lobbying in Australia – the money that denies our elected representatives the freedom to pursue policy that they (and we) know to be worthwhile.
The tragedy of our democracy is that the only people with the power to remove the influence of industry money over our political processes are the very people who benefit from it.
It is nonsense to say that people should control their own sugar intake, take responsibility for their own litter, and reduce their own carbon footprint. They simply will not unless there are economic incentives.
Industry is only too willing to employ “price signals” when they want to discourage people from going to the doctor or using other public services, but when it comes to helping the environment or putting an impost on their profits, it is silent or noisy in opposition.
Behavioural economists have proven that people do dumb things all the time. They buy water in plastic bottles, when water authorities provide it for next to nothing. They smoke. They consume too much sugar. Only collective, governmental action with tax, incentives and education over the long term can change the trends.
Plastic, of course, has many worthwhile uses, but at the end of its worthwhile use, it has to be recycled lest our ecosystems choke on it. Meanwhile, we should encourage the biodegradable substitutes for single-use plastics: mycofoam for polystyrene; pineapple-leaf product for vinyl; sorghum flour for edible utensils, for example, just as we are using renewables to reduce carbon emissions.
As it happens, the Hope Islands (there is a West as well as an East) were named (or should that be renamed?) by Captain Cook because after nearly hitting a reef near Cape Tribulation (hence its name) he had hoped to land on one of them, but he could not find a way in.
Having failed to land, he wanted to get away from being, in his eyes, too close to the dangerous mainland just 8kms away, so he sailed away from it east-south-east only to hit Endeavour Reef.
With plastic and carbon, hope is not enough. We may be wrecked and may not have the determination to salvage our environment before it is too late.
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