Keynote speech to Australasian Waste and Recycling Expo 2019 - Australia's Recycling Future

31 October 2019


Well, thank you very much for that warm introduction. Can I start by adding my acknowledgments to the traditional custodians of the land, and can I also thank the organisers of AWRE for their kind invitation to speak today on the topic of Australia's recycling future.

Can I say that it's been fantastic to see such a diverse range of organisations and businesses represented here today, from right across the waste management and recycling sectors. It's also great, I've got to say, to have encountered so much passion in this room as I've walked the floor of the expo and spoken to some of the stall-holders. It's very clear from my walk around the expo floor, but also from my travels around the Australian community in recent weeks and months, that there's no shortage of passion when it comes to some of these topics.

Importantly here in this room, there's a lot of collaboration and inspiration, so I think the industry's future is very bright, and it means I think Australia is pretty well served as we move towards the more circular economy that we want to see, and become a world leader, as we deserve to be, when it comes to recycling innovation and waste reduction.


So until this year, had you contacted the federal government about any topics to do with waste or recycling, you would have received a nice formal reply referring you to your state or territory jurisdiction. It continues to be the case that the states and territories in Australia have the ultimate powers of authority and lawmaking abilities when it comes to these issues. But things are changing now, and very, very quickly, and not least of which, as it was mentioned, I speak here as the first ever federal minister with responsibility for these portfolio matters. In fact, I think it's a first right across the OECD to have a national parliament with a representative with a recyclable waste reduction title – all those words in their title.

But one of the factors that's most important here is that we now have, in Scott Morrison, a Prime Minister who is very personally interested, and incredibly passionate about, securing the outcomes that we want to see when it comes to waste reduction and recycling and driving Australia towards a more circular economy. That alone should be a fair bit of the momentum that we need to see to grab these issues and take them and put them on the national agenda, at the front of the news, the media cycle, where some of these issues really deserve to be. It's a good outcome, because we do need to see some of these issues which have been hidden away or pushed to one side for too long, gaining their proper place when it comes to the national conversation and the priorities on national issues and challenges in front of us.

I'm sure you would have seen, for instance, when the Prime Minister was recently visiting the United States he made a point of ensuring that his visits went to see recycling facilities in the United States, where it was Australian know-how, Australian technology, and Australian innovation that was helping to solve some of these recycling and waste reduction challenges in what is one of the biggest markets around the world.

Why is the Federal Government getting involved?

And to be clear though, the Federal Government's new involvement in this space has many causes. There is increasingly – I think we can all agree – a real apparent need for national leadership when it comes to harmonised reform and policymaking. And our intervention is therefore timely for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as I'm sure you're all very acutely aware, recycling is becoming increasingly something which has huge international aspects as recyclable commodities are traded worldwide, and it's fair to say that no state or territory government in Australia really has the expertise or the know-how to deal with some of those international trade issues and export permits and the like. Many nations, not just China, are rapidly updating or changing their rules when it comes to imports and exports of recyclable commodities and waste streams, and that's closing many of the export markets that have underpinned some of the solutions that we've relied on in Australia for a very long time. And while that's been a challenge for Australia to manage, we can also see that it presents us with a real opportunity. And the path that our Federal Government is taking here in response to this situation recognises that we can protect our unique and precious environment, while also generating significant economic outcomes, as we tackle some of these looming problems.

In short, if we can rebuild and grow our recycling and waste management industries onshore, it means jobs. Lots of jobs. And in particular, the jobs and opportunities are created in exactly the places around Australia where we most need to see those opportunities created, in regional Australia and in the outer suburbs of many of our capital cities.

There's another reason for the Federal Government becoming so involved – increasingly over the last few years, the evidence is in, and as we've seen state and territory governments trying to grapple with some of the new and apparent challenges and some of the policy ideas and reforms that are out there, what we've seen sadly is approaches diverging in many instances. So we've seen, obviously, waste levies applied in all sorts of different ways with different results in many jurisdictions. We've seen container deposit schemes which are fundamentally different in each jurisdiction. We've even seen simple things like the definition of a single-use plastic bag being different in different markets across Australia. And that is leading to a situation where the rules, the idea that we have eight different sets of rules or approaches across a relatively small market in Australia, has the real risk of undermining the outcome that we want to see, and that's the creation and growth of a viable industry here onshore.

And in some instances, it's worse than that. It's creating these situations where arbitrage arises between the different systems, and that's driving some terrible behaviours with some business models arising, where waste and recycling commodities are being trucked or transported hundreds or thousands of kilometres just to take advantage of the difference in levies or the different definitions or loopholes between the different systems. That's definitely not the sorts of outcomes that we need to see as we create a genuine circular economy here in Australia.

What are the Federal Government’s commitments?

So as was mentioned, this is the first time the Federal Government has really become involved in this space, and we have done so off the back of being the first Federal Government elected with a comprehensive package of initiatives, programs and funding to make a real difference in this space. We have committed in total $167 million at this point through our Australian Recycling Investment Fund to boost Australia's recycling industry, to reduce waste, and to tackle the scourge of plastics pollution in our oceans and our waterways.

The fundamental focus of our announcements and commitments today is really about the on-shoring of the industry that we want to see here. Taking some of the activities which are currently happening offshore, and creating the capacity and the supply that we need to see in Australia to create the outcomes that we so desperately need. And those commitments are at the heart of these initiatives, $100 million in funding to be administered through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation in projects that support things like manufacturing, sorting, where there are those outcomes which you'd expect to see lower emissions, better environmental outcomes, and energy efficient recyclable products at the end of the day. We're driving $20 million into new and expanded product stewardship schemes, so we want to fast track the creation and the growth of product stewardship schemes right across Australia. There's some fantastic ones already in existence in Australia, including industry led and co-regulatory schemes. We want to drive the creation and expansion of even more of those. We see them as critical to achieving the outcomes that we all want to see.

We've put $20 million into research and development, into new and innovative solutions when it comes to tackling the problems around plastics. And that's going to be through – I'm not sure if everyone's heard of this – CRC's, the Collaborative Research Centres. We've got some funding through a new CRC project research round, which was announced in recent weeks. We're also delivering $16 million to work with our Pacific neighbours to reduce plastics and other waste in our oceans through the Pacific Ocean Litter Project. And we're investing about $6 million to support various other initiatives run by some of the third parties, the not-for-profit organisations and NGOs that are in this space as well. So, we're talking about APCO, we're talking about the Australian Council of Recycling, Planet Ark, to encourage them to do the work that they're doing in their different spaces as well. And then there's about five and a bit million dollars to fund community campaigns. So watch this space. There's a lot of work to do obviously, not just to bridge the information and awareness gap that exists as new solutions and new problems arise, but also really to answer that question around re-empowering local communities and individuals, so that they know they have the confidence that the outcomes are going to be achieved. Too many Australians have been feeling disempowered when it comes to questions about the environment recently. They've been feeling disempowered and they think that, for instance, when they put things in their rubbish bin and their recycling bin, is it really going to end up being recycled, or is it going to end up in landfill alongside their general waste?

So, I guess the other thing to say is it's important to realise that what I've just described then, it's not a case of set and forget when it comes to policies from the Federal Government's point of view. We definitely want to continue to be a big part of this conversation as it goes forward. We want Australia to be positioned as a world leader when it comes to solutions and innovation in this space. And so, we'll continue to monitor things as they develop and we will consider how else the Federal Government can step in and support the transition and the changes that we want to see.

Export ban

One of the golden threads that runs through the actions, the initiatives and the commitments that we've announced so far is the principle that the Prime Minister has espoused so often. It's our waste, so it should be our responsibility. That's a touchstone principle. And in accordance with that principle, the days of Australia sending our recyclable waste to other countries for reprocessing are coming to an end. You saw a few months back when the Prime Minister made the strong announcement that Australia will be phasing out the export of four problematic waste streams: plastic, paper, glass and tyres; and that was subsequently endorsed by the premiers of the states and territories at the recent COAG meeting. The Prime Minister is ambitious when it comes to the timetable and the delivery of that commitment. He stated that he'd like those bans to commence as early as next year. And we've been really encouraged, I have to say, by the strong response of state and territory and local governments so far to meeting that challenge. Next week, led by my colleague and friend, the Environment Minister Sussan Ley, who was walking the expo floor just before I met many of you, all of Australia's Environment Ministers will meet in Adelaide to consider the timetable for the export bans along with a number of a long list, quite frankly, of other priorities for reform.

Perhaps most critically, governments are focusing on how we can further build the capacity of Australia's domestic recycling industry so that we can process these types of materials onshore and develop domestic markets for recycled materials. This is the huge opportunity for Australia to seize. In the longer term, instead of exporting waste, we want to be exporting Australian innovation, know-how and technology to help other countries and in particular, with a focus on some of the other countries in our region – the Pacific countries, for instance, our friends and neighbours close by in the Pacific – to help them solve the challenges that they face. And I think it's fair to say that if we can find solutions that work for our regional and rural communities, many of those solutions will be scalable or replicable in terms of the challenges faced by our near neighbours around the Pacific.

It's not only going to grow a new multi-billion dollar industry in Australia and create jobs, as I said, in key areas around Australia, but it's also fundamentally about taking tangible, meaningful actions on the ground to help our environment. And I really want to underscore this point: this is a clear example of where government policy and national leadership is also good economics, at the same time as being good for the environment. It really is a win-win. And the circular economy and the principles that underpin that are a part of our vision. We need to fundamentally turn around the perception in the community that what we're dealing with is just rubbish and waste; that these are valuable resources with economic value; and it can be an important foundation for sustainable industries and jobs and economic opportunities into the future.

How will industry be impacted?

So, while we believe that the export ban will be a game changer for Australia's waste industry and creates the conditions for innovation, we also understand that its implementation will not be without challenges for Australian businesses, particularly in a vast and dispersed population like we have here in Australia.

And I want to make the point that we're not talking here about a takeover of policy and reform and responsibility for law-making by the Federal Government. While the Australian Government can certainly provide national leadership and coordination, states and territories will continue to retain their primary responsibility for making new laws, managing waste and recycling, and local councils and local communities will continue to have to be at the heart of solutions in local communities. They're going to have that critical role in managing waste through kerbside collection and contracting recycling under the rules and policies set by their states and territories.

And there's going to be a role, a very important role, for industry and for communities and for all of us as individuals in this journey. No single government and no single sector across our society or across our economy is going to be able to meet these challenges alone. Everyone has a role to play. And the point is that greater certainty, policy harmonisation and national leadership through the Federal Government's involvement can assist us to achieve these outcomes in many ways. And we can help play that vital role in re-empowering and motivating local communities and individuals to make a difference. And we can help industry to gain the confidence that it needs to invest in new recycling and remanufacturing facilities here onshore. We can also help build demand, as I mentioned earlier. We do understand, we understand very strongly that markets, established markets for recyclable materials and content, are going to be a critical part of the solution and we are looking very, very seriously, I want to tell you, at how local state and federal governments can help to stimulate demand through their procurement processes. It just makes economic sense, right? As I said, the job opportunities in creating these onshore industries are so significant. Our best estimate is that for every 10,000 tonnes of waste that's recycled onshore, over 9 jobs are created, compared to less than three jobs created if that waste, in an equivalent sense, is sent to landfill.

Implementing Australia’s National Waste Policy

So at next week's Meeting of Environment Ministers in Adelaide, in addition to considering the timetable for the phase out of those exports, ministers will be considering an action plan to implement Australia's new national waste strategy. Our objective is that the action plan is not just going to be bureaucratic talk at a high level. We want to see measurable targets, milestones, concrete actions and appropriate funding on the table. And as I said, in particular, we are pushing for all governments around Australia to make very strong commitments to increase their procurement of recycled materials, to stimulate demand and create those domestic markets that we need to see for an ongoing viable industry.

We also hope to see some other commitments as well. We want to improve transparency, reporting, information, consistency with data around our waste industry to guide investment decisions and hopefully hold all of the innovators and the entrepreneurs out there in terms of their own business models. We obviously want to increase recovery rates for resources and reduce waste generation. And we want to encourage states and territories to take the next important steps they should be taking when it comes to phasing out of problematic single-use plastics.

And I wanted to give you a sense as well that our discussions to date with other governments around Australia have been constructive and very positive. I really do hope that this upcoming meeting is one of those rare opportunities for us to demonstrate the strength of our federation coming together; all of those different governments stepping up, partnering and providing a unified direction that's been missing for far too long on the policy landscape when it comes to recycling and waste management.

Industry recycling targets

I just want to say one additional thing about how action by industry is so critical to achieving the outcomes that we need to see. The Federal Government can help support industry-led initiatives that can achieve the outcomes and we're committed to supporting those.

We've recently endorsed the ambitious national targets to reduce packaging waste that have been developed by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation. APCO has been working very hard with their almost 1500 members, making up most of Australia's retailers, wholesalers and suppliers that rely on packaging, to commit that by 2025, 100 per cent of Australia's packaging will be recyclable, compostable or reusable, and the target of 30 per cent average recycled content across all packaging, while at the same time phasing out or designing out the problematic, unnecessary single-use packaging, plastic packaging, that we see across so many product lines.

The Government has also supported the industry-led approach to phasing out plastic microbeads from the Australian market. That is a fantastic recent story; it's been overwhelmingly successful and that industry-led initiative has led to more than 94 per cent reduction in the plastic microbeads in products. And this morning, for instance, I helped a local product stewardship scheme, industry-led, MobileMuster, to celebrate 21 years since their formation, since they joined together as an industry to create a very successful product stewardship scheme that recycles old mobile phones.

We believe that with the right policy settings, and with support where appropriate from the Federal Government, industry can lead the way on many new initiatives. And I want to hear – I'm inviting you all – all of the innovators and the entrepreneurs and the business-minded amongst you, to come and talk to us about the ideas that you see in front of you to tackle some of the challenges and realise some of the opportunities that lie ahead of us.


I’m happy to take any questions at the end of this. But look, in conclusion, the practical environmental impacts of implementing our waste and recycling agenda are undoubtedly significant. At the end of the day, this is all about cleaner oceans, rivers, waterways, less plastic consumed by marine life, less deforestation, less landfill, less food waste, less pollution. And reducing our climate emissions. All Australians, consumers, industry, communities, government, all levels of government, have a role to play on this journey to join in what I'm affectionately referring to as the recycling revolution, and make recycling a part of our way of doing business into the future and our way of living life.

With governments, industry and community all working together, there is this tremendous opportunity in front of us to create a more sustainable future. It's an ambitious agenda. There are many challenges in front of us, but there's this great opportunity to have an enormous positive impact, as I say, both for our environment and for our economy.

So may I in closing call on all of you to keep up the passion; keep up the interest, the collaboration, the partnerships. There are, as I have said, many challenges out there, but there's many opportunities as well. The world ahead, when it comes to recycling and waste reduction, is going to be very exciting and fast-changing, and it's going to keep all of us very, very busy. Thank you for the opportunity to say some words and, as I said, I'm happy to answer any questions.