Keynote speech to Australian Packaging Convenant Organisation (APCO) 2019 Annual Awards

Speech

20 November 2019

E&OE

TREVOR EVANS: I’d like to begin by thanking APCO for inviting me here tonight. It’s a privilege to be asked to address your 2019 Awards and to present one of the night’s most important accolades.

I also acknowledge all of you, the organisations who are members of, who work with and partner with APCO in driving the change that you are driving. You are at the forefront of Australia's shift to a more circular economy, and it is indeed a time when public awareness, public sentiment about recycling, waste reduction, environmental management and sustainability has never been more top of mind. On the front pages of the news is exactly where these issues deserve to exist.

Tonight's very special, it's about acknowledging the high achievers in your field and bringing recognition to all of your commitment, specifically to sustainable packaging in Australia. As Brooke already noted, I think tonight marks the 20th anniversary of the Australian Packaging Covenant, and I was reflecting during Brooke's speech on how – given the importance of your organisation's work – it might just be the time for us all to put our heads together this evening and maybe think about an even more exciting name for your annual awards night. Brooke, I think as the – I'm just going to put that on the table, bear with me.

[Laughter]

Because one of the things that have I witnessed in my short political journey to date is the importance of selling your message, and it occurs to me that our MC here tonight is a man who has managed to single-handedly turn backyard landscaping into a prime-time TV sensation. And so I can't think of anybody more or better placed than our host here tonight, and all of the great talent that we have in this room, all of the great creative talent, to come up with a bit more of a showbiz name for these awards in the future. I mean, let's think about what it is that we're achieving here. I think we really need to think about names, like maybe the Pulitzer Prize for Packaging? The Walkley's for Waste? I don't know. I'll let all of those ideas percolate and I'm sure as more had a few more drinks in that area, the suggestions would get even better and more profound.

[Laughter]

The need for reform

Look, tonight's celebration is a timely opportunity to recognise the achievements of all of the organisations that have been working with APCO towards a more sustainable and circular approach to packaging in Australia. I know that all of you, or most of you, would be very, very familiar with the great work of your covenant signatory partners. So I thought I'd better direct my time this evening maybe by talking through a little bit more about the Australian Government's plans and priorities in this important and increasingly visible policy space.

So I guess to begin with a statement of the bleeding obvious. This is an area of policy that has very quickly gone from zero to hero, and in a very short period of time we are seeing that rapid transition as these issues take centre stage in the national conversation. Some of this is absolutely a result of the fact that we have in our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, the first Prime Minister who has a personal passion and an increasing interest in all things waste reduction and recycling. And some of that also follows his very serious policy reflection, I suppose, that for too long now, governments around Australia have probably not been sufficiently forward-looking in a planning sense when it comes to waste. And it is definitely the case that the policies that have been brought to the table in recent years have been diverging in all sorts of directions. And I'm sure many of you in this room wouldn't need convincing of the need for harmonisation and national leadership across all of the jurisdictions and across all of the levels of government in Australia. That's definitely needed more than ever.

I suppose speaking very frankly, one of the main motivations for the Federal Government becoming involved in these issues so heavily is we need to avoid the next situation arising, which is equivalent to what we've just experienced with different waste levies in every jurisdiction or different container deposit schemes, or different definitions of what is a single use plastic bag in each state and territory. And we need to stop that divergence from undermining exactly what it is that we all want to see, which is a stronger and more capable onshore industry.

So while the states and territories will certainly be retaining their primary responsibilities as the major lawmakers in this space, the Federal Government can definitely play that coordination role that I’m speaking of. And I think it's pretty clear that in the short period of time that the Federal Government has been so involved, and as this issue has been elevated into the national headlines in the way that it has, our role in that coordination sense is already having an impact.

Reform measures

And I did want to say, just for the sake of those who haven't heard it before, in politics they say you’ve never said it enough until you almost feel like throwing up because you've said so many times. Just very quickly, recap that this is the first Federal Government that has been elected with a comprehensive set of policy initiatives and funding measures to really drive the next stage of outcomes, the next steps when it comes to reducing waste and improving our recycling. We are in the process right now of delivering $167 million in total, including through our Australian Recycling Investment Plan, and that will be increasing Australia's recycling rates, tackling plastic waste in particular, and accelerating the work that we all want to see on new and expanded product stewardship schemes.

At the centrepiece of that is $100 million that we have open right now being administered through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, to support new reprocessing, remanufacturing, sorting, the sorts of investments that we need to see right through the supply chain, particularly for those problematic waste areas like plastics and paper. Because we want to see those outcomes of more high-quality recycled products being created here on shore and fed into our local packaging supply chains.

Our plan also includes things like $20 million, as I said to turbo-charge product stewardship and take it to the next level. $20 million around new and innovative plastic research and development through collaborative research centre projects, and more than $5 million to support organisations that are doing fantastic work in all sorts of areas, including APCO, and including Planet Ark. Paul, it's great to see you here tonight. And including organisations like the Australian Council of Recyclers.

We're also continuing to work very closely with state, territory, and local governments on a range of other measures. And it's been really encouraging in recent weeks to see some jurisdictions, in particular, especially together with businesses and industry, really demonstrate a strong commitment, a real willingness to collaborate and to drive the meaningful reform that we all want to see. As most people in this room would be aware, last year the Federal Government endorsed your ambitious target of making 100 per cent of Australia's packaging recyclable, compostable, and reusable by 2025 or earlier. By 2025, your targets will see 70 per cent of Australia's plastic packaging being recycled or composted, and 30 per cent on average recycled content included across all packaging in Australia, as well as the phasing out wherever possible of those problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging, which are so top of mind for our voters, customers, consumers – they're exactly the same, we just call them different labels.

And I guess I'd really like to reaffirm tonight the Government's strong commitment to working with APCO and with all of you in this room to drive the delivery of those 2025 National Packaging targets. And I do congratulate you all on the progress made so far and I'll explain in a little while why they are just so critical in the scheme of many of the other changes that are happening at the moment.

Meeting of Environment Ministers

As Brooke alluded to, the willingness and the need to drive change was driven home to me very recently a couple of Fridays ago in Adelaide. We had the Meeting of Environment Ministers, which as many of you would know is the first COAG type process that has existed in this country with an agenda very fully dominated by all issues recycling and waste. There have been some very good firsts come out of that meeting and those processes.

And as some of you would know, one of the one key outcomes of that meeting, led very ably by my senior minister Sussan Ley, was an agreement among all governments to the new action plan, which contains robust targets, significant measurable milestones and funding where appropriate so that we can all implement Australia's National Waste Policy together and be measured and held accountable for the steps that we take along the way.

It also included a proposed timetable for implementing the Prime Minister's and COAG's very proactive commitments to phase-out the exports of waste paper, plastic, glass and tyres when they haven't been processed into value-added materials or commodities for reuse. Under the plan, the export ban will be implemented in a phased approach commencing July next year, and with the ban on all exports of those different products taking full effect by July 2022.

And I guess I've got to also make the point that while the phased bans represent a significant step forward in the reform journey around waste, it's also important that that be backed up by a whole series of other policy changes that are happening simultaneously. We need appropriate funding as I mentioned that will drive the investments that we need to see in Australia, and to create the confidence that we need to see, the certainty that we need to see to help industry make those investments. Encouragingly, Friday week ago all governments in Australia also signed up to major procurement commitments to drive the demand side of the equation that has been missing for so long. Most notably they have signed up to significantly increase their procurement of recycled goods in infrastructure projects. And all of them have committed to identifying key, say iconic or resource intensive infrastructure projects like major roads that they have on their books right now, which can quite immediately start to drive up the demand side of the equation.

But I always make the point everywhere I go in and every audience that we all have a role to play. Government can certainly play a very big role in building the demand side of the equation, but so can industry. And that's one of the places where the packaging targets that you're all working on can play a very important role.

Industry-led initiatives

And I want to stress this point I guess before I conclude. You probably won't be surprised to hear, speaking very frankly, that almost every day, certainly every week, governments are approached by all sorts of groups, stakeholders, interest groups, media, with suggestions that all we need to do is heavy-handed interventions. Ban this, regulate that, mandate this or that. Many of those calls are very well-intentioned, I do want to make that point. Yet as someone who has a background working in industry and in the business sector, I want to say it's my strong view formed off the back of very, very real experiences working with businesses and organisations like yours, that industry-led initiatives play an incredibly important role and they often actually do drive much better, more positive outcomes than heavy-handed interventions, and often without giving rise to some of the unintended and significant adverse consequences that can arise from, sort of, top down heavy-handed interventions. And so I wanted to make this point as strongly as possible. Your involvement in APCO, your work towards the national packaging targets and your frank advice to Brooke and to me and to government along the way, is incredibly important when it comes to avoiding some of the other policy approaches that others are advocating for, and your involvement is incredibly important for us achieving the outcomes that we want to see in what I genuinely believe is the best possible approach. I know for a fact, and it's a point that I make inside of parliaments, I assure you, that much like politicians and their constituents and the relationship that we have, you and your organisations are incredibly attuned to the interests of your customers and you’re best-placed to understand and overcome the complexities that change entails in your industry. And at the same time be under no illusions that this government is and will continue to be unashamedly ambitious when it comes to making real progress in reducing waste and growing Australia's recycling sector. We'll continue to encourage industry, together with all levels of government and households and consumers, to do more. And that includes, as I think you heard today, thinking about how your national target for the use of recycled content can be applied across each separate stream of packaging and in particular how it could be applied to plastics. We are very strongly committed to working with APCO and supporting APCO and all of you in industry as you continue to lead those changes.

Our success in part depends on your success. And I know there's a number of recent success stories provided by industry-led initiatives of this kind that we can draw inspiration from, and I wanted to mention in passing the Revised Sustainable Packaging Guidelines. The launch of which I understand took place earlier today, Brooke. They are, I understand, the culmination of 18 months of very solid work and collaboration between industry and government, and they provide one really instructive example of the kind of reform process that our government is keen to see replicated right across the economy and which in my view is infinitely more preferable to the blunt instruments of just blanket bans or mandatory interventions.

Conclusion

Finally, with all journeys and this is certainly a journey that we're all on, in terms of reform, sustained engagement and collaboration is going to be key. I strongly encourage all of you here tonight to continue to engage with the Government, with me, with APCO and with your industry associations, as we continue to work together towards the very worthy goal of implementing a more circular economy. With governments, industry and community all working together, supported as we are by the changing mindset in the broader public, there is this tremendous opportunity that sits in front of us. It is an ambitious agenda, there's lots of challenges but it is certainly a big opportunity that sits in front of us. And there's this enormous opportunity for a win-win which is going to be fantastic for our environment and for our businesses and the economy all at once.

So in closing can I once again thank APCO for the wonderful work that you. Brooke, to you and to Sam in particular, keep up the passion, keep up the drive. It's wonderful to be here tonight to give this address and I wish each of the finalists who have been nominated for awards tonight all of the very best. Thank you.

Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management