Keynote speech to the Society of Plastic Engineers, The future of plastics and the circular economy conference

Speech

21 November 2019

E&OE

Introduction

Well thank you Han for those warm words of introduction. Can I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and can I pay tribute to Han for his role as the President of Plastics Engineers. Those of you who maybe know Han on a little bit better than I do, might not be surprised to hear that when I first met Han, at the Circular Economy Conference, I think it was, with the Dutch PM visiting, and he kindly invited me to be here to say some words today. I was, how would you say it, struck by his passion and his dedication and determination and I knew that the only sustainable answer to his invitation…

[Laughter]

…was to say yes, I'll be there and I'll speak. So, thank you Han for your passion and your leadership of this sector. And for the invitation to speak today. It's fantastic to be here in a room with so many dedicated experts and professionals, who are very clearly committed not only to your respective industries but, as Hahn said, ushering in the change which is imminent and which is happening all around us as we think about the win-win that is in front of us in terms of gaining environmental and economic opportunities.

I was thinking yesterday actually about this conference, and about the pace of change and innovation, and I'm just so aware that I'm here to address an audience of professionals and plastic engineers and specialists and experts on a subject like the future of plastics when it's probably safe for me to predict that many of the breakthroughs and the innovations that are going to capture the imagination of the public and drive many of the results that we want to see, and will truly define the future, are likely to come from the very expertise that's around this room.

So, with this in mind, I thought I'd take this opportunity today to take Han up on his invitation to look at the concept of circular economy from the perspective of government and in particular, the Federal Government, and to outline some of the actions that the Federal Government is undertaking and some of the steps we've already taken to date alongside the states and territories, local councils, industry, business and non-government organisations as we all strive to introduce these circular economy principles into our way of doing business and our way of living life.

The Australian policy context

As I've said in many contexts before, environmental management and waste reduction is an area that is witnessing this rapid and far-reaching change in Australia, but also across our region and across the world. And it's instructive, I suppose, to start by considering some of the real causes and the consequences of this change, particularly here on our doorstep in Australia. Obviously, one of the drivers and one which is particularly evident in my line of work, speaking to constituents all day, but also presumably from many of your perspectives, talking to your customers, consumers – we all call them different names but customers, voters, consumers, they're all the same people. And we're really, I guess, seeing and responding to this huge shift in public sentiment and public awareness when it comes to environmental management preservation, recycling waste and sustainability. And in a relatively short period of time, this subject really has gone from zero to hero and it's taken its place in the headlines of the national conversation. Finally, and that is exactly where it deserves to be and it's where it needs to be, I suppose, to drive many of the changes that we want to see. And so, we are witnessing concepts, phrases, like circular economy, product stewardship, as they transition from, I guess, industry jargon or academic talk into concepts which are really gaining traction in the public's consciousness.

No doubt, I think, another recent driver of this change is the fact that we have our first ever Prime Minister in Scott Morrison who is himself very personally interested and incredibly passionate about seeing real results when it comes to improving recycling and reducing waste and there's a number of reasons that he's very, very passionate about that, both domestic and quite frankly, international and strategic considering the intersection of big conversation topics like waste, oceans, marine pollution and the relationships that we're building and fostering across our near neighbours in the Pacific and the Asian region. And the Prime Minister has made a very serious assessment, I suppose, in reaching the conclusions that he has that for too long now, governments around Australia have not been sufficiently forward-looking when it comes to policy formulation in reducing waste and improving recycling. And we really have witnessed, I guess, over the last 10 or 15 years this diverging approach when it comes to the policy responses that have been offered up by different governments.

As Australia's first ever national minister with a dedicated portfolio title for waste reduction and environmental management, my presence here, I guess, is in part an indication symbolic of the importance that the Federal Government, as of this year, is placing on these issues and how determined the Prime Minister is to start to address this. And I'm sure that many in this room would recognise that there is now this huge need, not just for ongoing action along the lines that we've already seen, but a level of new national leadership and harmonisation really to drive or lead the reform that we're seeing across state jurisdictions. That need is probably more there than ever before. And I guess what the Prime Minister is very, very keen to avoid is a re-run of the recent experiences that we've seen when it comes to schemes like container deposit schemes; when it comes to the recent debates around waste levies; where we've seen different states taking hugely divergent approaches which, not just make it very, very difficult to do business across eight jurisdictions in Australia, but probably in some instances, are even fundamentally undermining what it is that we want to see, which is the growth, the creation, the establishment of a viable and strong onshore industry that's capable of delivering the solutions we want to see in a circular economy.

So, the states and territories are certainly going to remain, continue to be the primary lawmakers with constitutional responsibility for legislating and making policies on these on these topics. But the Federal Government's involvement, and we've seen it recently with the sort of first ever meeting of environment ministers two Fridays ago in Adelaide with a national agenda dominated by waste and recycling. The Federal Government can play that coordination role, that national leadership role that has been missing and it is, I think, I hope clear already in the short time that my portfolio has existed and our work has commenced, that the Federal Government's involvement is starting to drive the sorts of solutions, the national conversation, the outcomes that we all want to see.

One obvious example of that is the recent response to very well publicised issues that we've seen affecting international markets for exports of recyclable commodities, which until recently was obviously treated as a given by many around Australia. And these sudden shifts that we've seen around our region and on the international stage and quite frankly, the prospect, the very real prospect of further change on that front, have created a really unique challenge to manage here in Australia.

So through the Prime Minister's and through COAG's proactive commitment, the very strong decision to phase out the exports of waste paper, plastics, glass and tyres, Australia is going to be more in control of our own future rather than being so beholden to the sorts of arbitrary decisions and foreign jurisdictions that have, I guess, driven the debate in a reactive sense over recent weeks and months. And we accept that that's going to require us to simultaneously look at the investments we need to see happen and encourage and supply capacity, growing the demand side for recycled products and contents.

And I want to say I guess as one of my takeaway messages here, that the Federal Government is very, very committed through our existing policies, and policies we're working on right now, to deliver outcomes on both of those fronts. It is my firm belief and it's the Prime Minister's strong belief as well that with the right reform measures in place, the right policy settings, a more forward-looking agenda, this new operating environment isn't just one that we should be framing through the prism of big challenges. But we should definitely be seeing it through the prism of big opportunities. And quite frankly, one of those opportunities is industry and prosperity and opportunities and jobs here in Australia, and particularly jobs in exactly the parts of Australia where we need to see them the most – regional and rural Australia and in the outer suburbs.

Australia’s perspective on circular economy

So the Government sees the concept of circular economy as a way in which we can take advantage of these real economic opportunities in front of us, while at the same time delivering those environmental wins that we all want to see. But in order to do this and in order, frankly, to have any real productive conversation about the economy and the environment that policymakers, politicians, journalists, we all need to be very clear-sighted about the costs and the benefits of the policy choices that confront us. As I mentioned earlier, there has been this very visible, very commendable shift in public attitudes and sentiment around questions of environmental preservation and sustainability. And it's certainly encouraging to see that shift and the greater awareness that there is growing around these significant issues, and the increasing quantity of the public discussion is very welcome. But it also needs to be matched in every instance, I hope, with an increase in the quality of the debate and the commentary that's occurring on these issues.

And I wanted to make this point as strongly as I could. I guess in particular plastics are frequently the victim of a bit of a skewed public perception. Too often the significant social and environmental benefits of plastics as a product, as a technology, and those benefits range from everything from reduced food waste – another big challenge confronting the Government and society – through to health and medical outcomes for instance. Those benefits are too often downplayed, while environmental costs and consequences are too often misunderstood or taken out of context.

We are where we are because new technologies and ways of doing things have in fact enhanced lifestyles in Australia and around the world, not because somebody some decades ago came up with a diabolical plan to create some sort of evil product. And that's not to say that the desire to better preserve our natural environment is at all misplaced. Merely that we need more than good intentions. We need good economic analysis and a dispassionate assessment of the relative impacts and merits of all of the options and policies that we have in front of us.

It's my belief that the principles of a circular economy, applied correctly, can and will recognise these costs and benefits. From resource extraction, product design and manufacture, all the way through to end of life waste disposal, resource recovery and remanufacture. A circular economic approach can identify the opportunities to improve resource efficiency and better manage the use of scarce materials which in turn will create a stronger, more resilient and more sustainable economy.

Reform measures

With this in mind, I want to touch on the Government's commitments, policies and initiatives announced today to help bring about and create the circular economy. Remembering of course that 2019 is the first time that a Federal Government has really stepped so significantly into this space and this is the first Federal Government that comes to the table with a comprehensive set of initiatives, policies and funding measures when it comes to issues of waste and recycling. So

as we speak, our Government is delivering on, in total $167 million worth of investments, policies and plans wrapped up with a bow and the title the Australian Recycling Investment Plan to increase Australia's recycling rates and reduce our waste, tackle plastics in particular and accelerate work on new product stewardship schemes. At the heart of those commitments is $100 million, which is on the table right now, open for applications being administered by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, specifically to co-invest and support the sorts of investments we need to see in building the supply and the capacity side of the circular economy.

So we're talking about, you know, building the sorting, the recovery, the recycling and the remanufacturing facilities here in Australia that we've been relying on too long in terms of offshore facilities. Our plan also includes, as I said, a $20 million injection of funds to turbocharge solutions in the space of product stewardship. We recognise that product stewardship is in an early phase of policy implementation in Australia. There are some good news stories on the product stewardship front, but there's huge untapped opportunities when it comes to product stewardship going forwards.

And so we've put funding and mechanisms on the table to really create new and expanded product stewardship schemes across a whole range of new products in the Australian economy. And we've also put $20 million on the table through our CRC – our collaborative research centre – round of projects to drive research and innovation specifically on the question of plastic recycling, plastic design and plastic waste. I think the first round of that's already been announced and my understanding is the interest from researchers and universities has been overwhelming. So watch this space, I'm sure there's more announcements to come given the interest and the demand that there is for that.

There's a whole series of other announcements that I won't go into. You can find them on the Government's websites but I thought I'd just touch on a few others under one heading and that is there's a range of other non-government organisations out there that are doing fantastic work that we are helping to support, whether it's groups like OzHarvest in the food waste space, whether it's APCO, whose awards night I was at last night here in Melbourne, Planet Ark, the Australian Council of Recyclers, they are all doing fantastic work in their roles in this sort of ecosystem of agencies and organisations driving change in the space, and we're very, very keen to support them as they do that work.

And the other thing that I will just note is that we've invested $16 million into a Pacific Ocean Litter Project which is commencing Australia's work as we take more responsibility as a leader for driving solutions in our region right across the Pacific. We are also continuing to work with states and territories and local governments on a range of other policies and measures. And I want to say, fresh off the back of that first COAG-type process where all of the states and territories and local government were in a room, it has been really encouraging to see some of these jurisdictions in particular together with business and many in industry demonstrating, I guess, a real interest and a dedication to collaboration and driving meaningful reform.

But we've all got to keep up that good work, that engagement and that collaboration. And it is important, as I said, to recognise the important role that the non-government sector's also playing. They are a trusted voice to many households and individuals out there in society and there is a role for all of us, including and especially all of us as individuals and households making the small decisions day by day that ultimately drive the change and the solutions that we want to see.

Conclusion

So, while we can do much more to improve our material use here in Australia, sharing experiences, knowledge and know-how with our international partners, we're going to see these better global environmental and economic outcomes. We believe that with the right policy settings, and with the support where appropriate from the Federal Government as I've outlined, Australia can be a real leader in this space and we are now up on a timeline that will see Australia ceasing its export of waste plastics and other materials around the world. And we want to move that to a space where we are instead exporting our technology, our innovation and our know-how to other countries around the world. At the end of the day, and in conclusion, this is our reform journey that we're on and it is a journey.

And it's more than just a microeconomic task from the Federal Government's perspective. We do need to update our country's regulatory approach, no doubt about that, and we're doing that. But we also need to drive that national leadership and coordination role that I was talking about while we simultaneously build and invest in the supply and capacity that we need to see, and to build the demand that we need to see for recycled content and products.

Ultimately, to drive the long term change that we're all interested in seeing, we need to change the mindset fundamentally about plastics, in particular, from the current focus on waste and rubbish to a focus where plastic streams are seen as a resource with value. Only when this value proposition is realised will we see the sort of behaviour change fundamentally that we want to see. The demand and the supply investment and the creation of a truly circular economy rely on this, else we will never truly get those decisions by individuals, households and businesses on a day to day basis that will fundamentally drive those better recycling and waste reduction outcomes

So in conclusion, thank you for the invitation to be here today. Continue to engage very strongly with me and our Government and your associations and organisations. We will have to continue the engagement and dialogue going forward because this will continue to be a fast-moving space. I'm very, very happy to take any questions and I'll make myself available outside on the showroom floor after this as well. So thank you everybody for the opportunity.

Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management