‘War on cigarette butts’: Coalition plan to reduce pollution ‘never existed’, Tanya Plibersek says

Up to 9bn plastic cigarette butts are discarded and washed into waterways in Australia each year

Almost two years after the former Coalition government declared “war on cigarette butts”, a promised taskforce to reduce pollution still hasn’t been established.

Up to 9bn plastic cigarette butts are discarded and washed into waterways in Australia each year, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. The filters can take up to 15 years to break down into microplastic.

The former environment minister, Sussan Ley, announced a “taskforce to address plastic in littered cigarette butts” in March 2021 as part of a new national plan to tackle plastic waste.

The “industry-led cross-sectoral stewardship taskforce”, which was welcomed by many environmental groups, would have examined potential solutions – including removing butts from cigarettes entirely.

The current environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the former government had “no money set aside, no members selected, no staff allocated and no terms of reference”.

“Sussan Ley announced a ‘war on cigarette butts’ with a new taskforce that never existed,” Plibersek said.

Ley’s office has been contacted for comment.

Plibersek did not confirm whether the cigarette butt taskforce would now be established. Instead, she said she had asked her department to report back “with options to sort this issue out”.

“I’ve been clear in my public statements that the Albanese Labor government stands prepared to regulate if industry is unable to achieve results by themselves,” Plibersek said.

Jeff Angel, the director of the Boomerang Alliance of 53 nongovernmental organisations concerned about plastic pollution, said the federal government should regulate change “rather than just set up a talkfest taskforce”.

‘‘The previous government duped the community because its plastic plan with its bans on certain items and cigarette taskforce never got past the press release. I think the community is fast running out of patience and I hope they take heed of this,” Angel said.

When the national plastics plan was announced, Ley described the 1m tonnes of single-use plastic consumed by Australians each year as “unsustainable”.

Shannon Mead, the founder of the advocacy group No More Butts, recently requested an update on the taskforce given the time lapsed since its announcement and the scale of the problem.

“Cigarette butts are the most littered item in Australia, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to clean up each year,” Mead said.

“We encourage and welcome action to address this issue from a regulatory standpoint and are happy to work with any federal or state government or department to deliver an outcome.”

Around one-third of the nearly 100 chemicals inside cigarette butts are “acutely or chronically toxic” to sea life, according to Clean Up Australia. Butts have been found in the stomachs of birds, turtles, whales and fish.

Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the taskforce was “always doomed to fail” and regulation was required to overhaul the recycling industry.

“Voluntary waste reduction targets and stewardship schemes without legally binding mandates do not work. It’s that simple,” Whish-Wilson said.

Kate Noble, a manager with WWF Australia, said the federal government should be leading on tobacco-related pollution as it did with plain packaging reforms.

“Options for regulation at the global level are now being discussed as part of UN plastic pollution treaty negotiations and new laws are being introduced in Europe to make tobacco companies pay for waste management and clean-up,” Noble said.

When the taskforce was announced in 2021, a spokesperson for British American Tobacco Australia – the country’s biggest manufacturer of tobacco products – said the company was “not aware of the details” but welcomed “any opportunity to work with the government to address butt litter”.


Henry Belot

The GuardianTramp

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