Speech, National Plastics Summit - Australian Parliament House, ACT

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02 Mar 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Well thank you for that introduction and welcome everybody here today.

Can I particularly start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people on whose land we meet, and we are reminded in this very special place on Ngunnawal land today and can I acknowledge elders past, present, and those importantly, who are emerging in the future and thank you very much for the acknowledgement and welcome to country today.

Can I also acknowledge any service men and women who are here with us today, and veterans, and just simply thank you on behalf of a grateful nation for your service.

But to the kids who are joining us, where’s Molly? Can you put up your hand Molly? She’s a champion as all these kids are champions. And it was her advocacy work up there in north Queensland that Warren Entsch some time ago brought to my attention, all the girls and boys that we’ve got here are champions of this issue and I want to thank you very much for joining us here today and being part, because it’s all about your future, and the Australia and the world we want you to grow up in that is the focus of all of our efforts today.

To the scientists that are here today, to those in industry who are here today, to the community leaders who are here today, to the investors who are here today, to everyone who is here today, you’ve come here today because you are part of the solution we’re working on together.

And can I particularly acknowledge all of my colleagues who are here today, there are too many to mention, but particularly Sussan Ley the Minister for Environment, together with the Assistant Minister Trevor Evans, who are leading our initiatives.

I’ve lived pretty much all of my life by the sea.

By the beach, and my electorate today in the Southern part of Sydney where my family and I have lived for all of my kid’s life, until very recently, we’ve always grown up by the sea. And my first awareness of issues regarding the environment were about the quality of our oceans.

And when I was a kid, and you went to the beach after school, down at Bronte, it wasn’t always the surf report you have to be mindful of, you had to be aware of the waste report back in those days. And I won’t tell the kids what we had to avoid when we were in the surf after school.

But that was a problem. And it was a really big problem. 

But it's a problem that engineers, and scientists, and governments, and industry, worked together on to come up with a solution, and deep ocean outpours were developed and today when you go and swim at our beaches they are some of the cleanest of any you’ll see in the world today, particularly our metropolitan beaches.

And so I’ve always been a passionate believer that you don’t come to conferences like this to spend all your time analysing and celebrating the problem, we know there’s a problem, what we have to focus on are the practical solutions.

And what I particularly, why I’m particularly drawn to this agenda more than most is, it’s those who are involved in this are very focused on the practical things that can be done. And Ian Kiernan, the late Ian Kiernan was a great example of that.

He was all focus on the answer, and the practical things that each and every one of us could be engaged in.

Each and every one of us could play a part in.

Because we all have a responsibility. We all have responsibility.

Can I also acknowledge here today, because it’s a problem that we need to solve not just here in Australia but particularly around our region, can I acknowledge the Director-General of the Secretariat of Pacific Regional Environment programme, Kosi Latu, who has travelled to be here with us from Samoa. And it’s wonderful to have you here with us today.

I am particularly aware, and conscious of the challenge this present in the Pacific Island communities amongst our pacific family. 

And there it’s not just an issue of the waste itself but how that impacts on people's health in Pacific Islands, how it impacts on their livelihoods in pacific Island communities, and so this is a very existential challenge for the people of the pacific, that is part of our pacific step up. It represents a big component of where we’re seeking to play a role to support our pacific family.

At the heart of what I believe - be it the economy, our defence, our education, the state of our cities, or the health of the environment - is that we have a responsibility to leave our children better than what we inherited.

There’s a the pact between the generations, honouring our past and our traditions as we have with the Ngunnawal elders, but also striving to leave the next generation something more than we ourselves have enjoyed.

It’s a standard. And implicit in that standard is a determination to not diminish what we have ourselves have been granted by careful stewardship of others.

Our Indigenous communities understand this through 60,000 years or more of environmental stewardship, gifting to us the quality that we have before us today.

We have to see this land the same way - and our misuse of plastics is a scarring on our land, and a scarring on our oceans.

For something that does so much good, as we were hearing just before. It does not always do that good.

Plastics, they are remarkable:

They keep our food fresh. 

It is vital for our medicines, our health system. 

It is lightweight, it's inexpensive and it’s part of our everyday lives. 

But therein lies the problem.

Plastic that is designed effectively, used correctly, recycled reliably, and remanufactured creatively can stay in the economy almost indefinitely with little environmental impact.

But too often plastic products are not designed to be re-used or to be recycled. 

They are not collected carefully, or are difficult to sort and process commercially. Or the market doesn’t support remanufacturing into valued products.

And that’s what we have to change.

The change we need is so substantial that the only way forward is in partnership - working with our neighbours; in our region, state, territory and local governments; industry - manufacturers, supermarkets, customers; waste operators; everybody, communities included.

Today I want to clearly outline the three pillars of our plan as to how we believe this can be addressed as a government.

Firstly, it’s our waste, it’s our responsibility. Taking responsibility for our plastic waste.

Expanding industry capability, secondly.

And thirdly, encouraging demand for recycled products.

It’s about making Australia a world leader in how we manage our waste and recycling.

Firstly on the issue of taking responsibility. 

Every year we export some 1.4 million tonnes of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres.

Some of this material has been sorted, processed and will go on to form a valuable input to a commodity supply chain overseas, that’s true.

But much of it is of low value and destined to find its way into the environment through waterways, or into our oceans.

Waste sent to developing countries, usually by developed countries, for recycling is often dumped in poor villages, picked through by those living in poverty and the remainder burned or washed into rivers and then out to sea.

Every year, 8 million tonnes of plastics ends up in our oceans.

And developing countries are sick and tired of having to deal with developed countries’ waste. And so they should be, and that’s why we’re acting.

In the Pacific alone, there is an island of floating plastic waste which is nearly three times the size of France. 

Now when someone first told me that, I found that hard to believe. I actually wanted to see a picture. And you hear lots of factoids in this job and people present numbers to you all the time, and that one sounded pretty far-fetched. But I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the images of this and it’s true, it’s there. 

And it’s an indictment on all of us.

The vast bulk of this is estimated to have come from 8 rivers in the East Asian region.

Our Pacific family has not caused this problem, but they have to deal with the impacts of it on their fisheries, on their wildlife and islands.

We are choking our oceans.

Scientists estimate that in just 30 years’ time the weight of plastics in our oceans will exceed the weight of fish in our oceans.

Just think about that for a second.

Taking responsibility means recognising the problems we are contributing to - and it also means keeping faith with the Australian people who recycle because it is the right thing to do. 

When we take the time and effort to sort, clean and dispose of something in the recycling bin, well it’s pretty reasonable that we think that it will be recycled.

Only 21 per cent of plastic waste we put in our yellow bin for recycling is actually recycled.

We’re getting ripped off.

There’s a promise that is sort of implicit - you’ve got the bin, you put it in there, and you expect the right thing to be done with it.

And it’s important that when we have programmes in place that deal with that material, that that promise is honoured. Otherwise people will give up on it. And they’ll stop doing it. And the problem will get worse.

Australians don’t expect their waste to be exported to someone’s village or waterway where kids can’t then swim in the rivers, or swim in their own beaches, that’s not right.

Scientists estimate that in just 30 years time as I’ve said, there is this terrible, terrible situation we will face when it comes to the weight of plastics in our ocean.

In two weeks I will meet with state and territory leaders at COAG to finalise the details of a ban on the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres. 

Which we announced, I announced when we were up in North Queensland- up in Cairns at the COAG meeting being held there last year.

I’m not talking about banning exports of value-added recyclable materials, I have to stress.

Where our materials can actually go into production chains, in other places, whether that be in New Zealand or in other parts of the world, that’s fine, that’s practical, that’s part of the solution.

I’m talking about the materials that end up doing so much harm to the environment.

Australians are doing the right thing and we can only keep faith with them by transforming our waste and recycling markets.

Which leads me to the second pillar - which is industry uplift.

Only last week, Infrastructure Australia listed National Waste and Recycling Management as one of five new national High Priority Initiatives, and I agree with them.

The state of our recycling and remanufacturing facilities, as well as the economics behind our collection systems, are under severe strain. 

We need to invest in this industry - invest in the technological innovation that maximises the value of the recycled product and minimises the costs as well.

The Australian Council of Recycling observed that only 8 per cent of the $2.6 billion collected by states and territories through waste levies has been reinvested in recycling infrastructure and technology.

People are putting and paying fees on waste management levies that isn’t finding it’s way into recycling infrastructure and technology. And that has to change.

I will have more to say on this closer to the up-coming Budget, but the Commonwealth stands ready to work with the states, to co-invest in these critical infrastructure facilities, and with industry. 

We are working with state and territory governments to identify and unlock the critical upgrades that will lead to a step-change in their recycling capacity. And we will invest in these facilities with governments and with industry on a 1 to 1 to 1 basis.

Equal partners to build that capability which is essential to actually drive change.

Investing in the sector isn’t just good for the environment, it's incredibly good for our economy as well.

The waste sector in Australia employs around 50,000 people and generates around $15 billion every year.

For every 10,000 tonnes of waste sent to landfill, 2.8 direct jobs are created. But if we recycle the same waste, as mentioned before, 9.2 direct jobs are created.

According to the Australian Council of Recycling, recycling more domestically could create more than 5,000 new jobs.

The global recycled plastics market is expected to grow at 7.9 per cent annually over the next decade, they are phenomenal figures, and be worth almost $67 billion in 2025.

Industry is not blind to the incredible potential here.

And neither is our Government.

Last month, waste management group Cleanaway, packaging maker Pact, and beverages giant Asahi announced they were building a new plastics recycling facility in Albury, in the Minister for Environment’s seat.

This facility will turn 900 million used bottles - or 28,000 tonnes of plastic - into new bottles every year.

Now I’m excited about that at a whole range of levels. But one is an important economic driver in rural and regional parts of the country as well.

These facilities can be in regional towns, and create regional jobs. It doesn’t just have to be in the big cities.

Diverting waste from landfill also, and creating 30 new jobs in regional Australia.

Coca-Cola Amatil is exploring options with waste management company Veolia for a recycled plastic processing plant in Australia. Meaning our plastic bottles could be processed here, instead of being shipped overseas for processing and then returned.

Again, more jobs, less waste.

And as we know, the long-term sustainability of any industry is found in demand.

Which leads to that third pillar: which is about building demand for recycled plastics.

We know that banning the export of waste plastics will keep more of the raw stock here for use, and lifting industry capacity will increase our ability to use these materials constructively.

But to make the system really hum, we need to build the market.

Through months of consultation with industry, customers, retailers and brand-owners, the one issue everyone comes back to is the need to increase demand for recycled products.

Different countries have tried this in different ways but, true to our principles, my Government will not take a top-down, tax and punish approach to this.

We think Australians will respond to better incentives. 

And we want to encourage and incentivise the best. 

We want to support recycled products to compete in the market. 

We want to see industry step up and be part of the solution which they want to do also.

And government must be part of that as well.

That’s why I am pleased to announce the first of a number of measures my Government will take to build demand for these recycled products.

We will be strengthening the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines to make sure every procurement undertaken by a Commonwealth agency considers environmental sustainability and the use of recycled content as a factor in determining value for money.

We’ve used Commonwealth procurement policy to energise our Indigenous businesses and we’ve had tremendous success - in a couple of weeks time, I’ll be up in Townsville where we’ll be opening the new stadium in Townsville.

They were setting records on indigenous businesses and indigenous employment in the construction of that facility, and I’m sure JT is pretty happy about that as well.

And we’re having success by using the way the Commonwealth spends money to actually support those changes which means businesses can then invest in the technology and the processing and the systems that they have, to respond to that demand.

In any market, you increase demand and the industry will respond.

And respond it ways you never imagined.

Last year, I visited a recycling facility in Western Sydney that turns recycled plastic into asphalt.

A one kilometre, two-lane stretch uses up to half a million plastic bags.

Less waste. More jobs.

Across Australia we are seeing tremendous innovation - recycled fence posts; crash barriers and noise walls built from recycled materials; and so much more.

These are all things that governments actually get involved in buying and procuring which can underwrite, effectively, the market.

Sydney-based technology company Licella is an example of what is possible.

It has developed chemical recycling technology that converts end-of-life plastics into waxes, diesel and new plastics.

Last month, it announced a partnership with an American bioplastic manufacturer to commercialise this technology.

Mildura-based company Integrated Recycling is also innovating.

It’s produced picnic tables, bollards and gardening products — all from recycled plastic. And now it’s making railway sleepers for Victoria’s rail network.

These are all examples of home-grown ingenuity which we can be really proud to export.

And a key part of the work that we do with our partners all around the world, and Karen Andrews as the Minister for Industry, Science, and Technology will know, that the work we’re seeking to do, and the United States, and other places as part of our partnerships is getting our scientists together and not just the scientists that work for big public institutions like the CSIRO, but the scientists who work for companies, and getting them to work together. To work out how they can develop more of these products and do so in a way where people will buy them and when that happens you’re really starting to move.

Meaningful change will be multifaceted, and there is much to do.

Of course it will require education; changes in behaviour, but most importantly, a willingness by all of us to step up.

Molly stepped up.

We’re stepping up.

Everybody who’s come here today wants to step up. 

And I think that’s absolutely brilliant and I’m sure as we continue to focus on the practical things that we need to change, the practical things that enable us to move forward on what is one of the biggest challenges that we’re facing environmentally, particularly in our part of the world.

We are a continent surrounded by the ocean. Our waterways are our lifeblood. And the same is true for our pacific family and as you move up through the Asia-Pacific region, this is such a big issue for our part of the world and for our future, and for the kids who are here with us today. 

I’m so pleased to see them here as part of what’s happening here today along with the scientists and all the others who are joining us here.

I want to thank you for making the effort to be here, and I’m looking forward to what some of the outcomes will be from you today, and I wish you well for all your discussions.

And I want to conclude again by thanking Minister Ley and Assistant Minister Evans for the way they’ve been driving this agenda, together with the Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment, to ensure that we are doing the practical things that are necessary to drive the change that we all want to see. 

Thank you all very much for your attention, I wish you all the best for this Summit today.