Speech to the Sydney Morning Herald and VISY Recycling Roundtable

17 February 2023

I want to begin by recognising that we’re meeting here today on the home of the Cammeraygal people.  


I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.  


Can I extend my thanks to everyone joining us here this afternoon, at the second annual recycling roundtable. 


As the leaders of some of Australia’s largest companies, I know you’re grappling with these issues every day. 


And I want to acknowledge from the start that any successful policy in this area will need to build on your experience and work closely with your operations.    


Your attendance at this forum is a sign of your honest commitment to solving these problems – and as Minister, I appreciate it.  


Can I also thank the sponsors of today’s event.  


To Anthony Pratt and VISY – global leaders in recycling, pioneers in remanufacturing, and a company that has just turned the soil at a new $500 million glass recycling facility in Brisbane.  


When it’s up and running, the factory will employ two hundred people in stable, environmentally friendly, green collar jobs.  


It’s a reminder that there are three jobs in recycling for every one job in landfill.  

And when we establish proper systems, when we invest in the necessary infrastructure, when we set the right rules, this industry can be a win for business, a win for workers, and a win for our planet.  


To the other organisers, James Chessell and Nick O’Malley at the Sydney Morning Herald, it’s only right that we’re meeting today under your masthead.  


Because I read your paper every morning, religiously, and it feels like every time I’ve opened the Herald lately you’ve been breaking news about waste and recycling.  


It’s a new level of attention and scrutiny for the sector, and I welcome it, even when the stories have been difficult to swallow.  


The collapse of Redcycle soft plastics collections came as a great shock to everyone, including to me as Minister.  


It’s left people feeling upset, disillusioned, even betrayed.  

And if we’re being honest with ourselves, these people have every right to feel cheated.  


For many years, based on public advice, Australians have been diligently sorting their rubbish, taking the time to separate their soft plastics, then going out of their way to drop it all off at the local supermarket.


They accepted this inconvenience because they cared.  

They weren’t naïve. They knew they were one piece in a much bigger puzzle.  

But they believed, with good reason, that their efforts mattered.  

And now, because the system failed them, over 12,000 tonnes of plastic collected over four years risks being sent to landfill.  


Our government is doing all we can to deal with the immediate situation, in conversation with people in this room.  


But taking a step back, and looking at the bigger picture, there are lessons from the Redcycle experience that we should all be paying attention to.   


Because we can make all the promises we like. We can set lofty targets. We can express all the good intentions in the world. 


But if we don’t get the logistics right, if we don’t build robust processing systems, if we don’t establish effectively regulated institutions, then we will fail. 


Which brings me to our national recycling goals.  

We inherited some very ambitious targets from the previous government. 

Targets we were happy to support.  

But it’s clear that we are falling well short of these goals.  

In fact, we’re not even in the same postcode.  


With plastics recycling, instead of rising to 70% by 2025 as promised, we’ve been stuck around 16% for the past four years.  


I'm not pointing this out just to cast blame.  

I’m pointing it out because it teaches us the same lesson as Redcycle.  

And that lesson is that good announcements and nice sentiments don’t cut it in this industry. 


We have to do the nuts-and-bolts work – the work of supporting logistics chains, of designing effective regulation, of investing in the right facilities.  

And we have to constantly guard against greenwashing and free riders.  


A lot of this work is not what you would call glamorous. It won’t attract big headlines in James’s newspaper, as nice as that would be. 

But it’s the work that’s necessary.  


And it’s with these lessons in mind that we’ve designed the four pillars of our recycling policy:

  • Encouraging the circular economy 
  • Investing in recycling infrastructure  
  • Harmonising our approach across Australia 
  • And ultimately being prepared to regulate


Firstly, we’re encouraging the circular economy, because we know that 70% of waste is locked in at the design phase, before it ever enters one of your supermarkets.  


So we need to get up the supply chain, to where the biggest decisions are being made.  


I know that Sandra Martinez is here, from Nestle, and I want to congratulate you for your company’s decision to wrap Kit Kats in 30% recycled plastic – which is a world first.   


So next time you bite into a Kit Kat, you can do so with the knowledge that you’re also reducing your environmental footprint.  


Our government wants to make it as easy as possible for companies to make these changes, and that’s what I’ll be promoting as Minister. 


The best way to deal with waste is creating less of it in the first place, and that means using alternative materials wherever we can.  


I’m particularly excited by the prospect of algae based plastics. 


Our government has just established a national taskforce on the circular economy, with some of Australia’s best scientists and engineers, which will meet for the first time on Monday.  


It will look at all our available policy levers – like market instruments, regulatory tools, product stewardship, procurement decisions, and education campaigns – and it will make concrete recommendations to government about the next steps we should take.  


Secondly, we’re supporting recycling infrastructure, because as Redcycle showed, if you don’t have a reliable place to process this material, you have no hope of effectively reusing it.  


Australia has already put export bans on a range of materials, but that will only work if we have the capacity to deal with it onshore.  


Our government is in the process of rolling out the $250 million Recycling Modernisation Fund, including the $60 million we budgeted in October for hard to recycle plastics, like soft plastics.  


My colleague, Ed Husic, is also looking to support remanufacturing as part of his $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund.  

We’re being methodical and considered as we invest this money, so we want to work with you to get the best value for our investment.  


This includes finding ways to increase demand for recycled content.  


Thirdly, we’re looking to harmonise our approach to waste across Australia, so we can apply best practice nationally.  


While the federal government doesn’t collect material itself, we can play a role coordinating the work of other levels of government. 


This is something all the state and territory environment ministers agreed on when we met in October.  

This will also need to involve local governments, like Mayor Tate’s on the Gold Coast. 

We’re initially focussing on two areas – container deposit schemes and kerbside recycling. 


Because proper functioning, high standard and consistent recycling collection is critical to companies like Visy – to guarantee them a quality, certain product supply stream. 

And finally, I’m prepared to regulate when it’s necessary.  


I’m happy to let industry take the lead, but if industry is unable to act, then I have no problem imposing obligations.  


I’ve already prioritised the establishment of product stewardships arrangements for tyres and mattresses.  

And we’re looking to regulate solar panels and other e-waste.  


Regulation will never be our first step – but I’m not afraid to take it when it’s necessary.  

This is a roundtable, not a lecture, so I will finish there.  


But no one at this forum should underestimate the strength of the public pressure around waste and recycling in Australia.  


Since becoming Minister for the Environment and Water, I’ve received more questions on this topic in Question Time than any other.  


People want to live more sustainable lives. 

They’re happy to take the time to buy products that can be reused and recycled. 

They want to see less disposability around them – and they want to see less rubbish in their red bins.

Australians are looking to us for answers.

And if we work together at forums like this, we can give them those answers.

Thank you.