ABC Sydney interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

18 July 2023

SUBJECTS: New plastic passport; Upcoming Voice to Parliament referendum; cost of living.

FRAN KELLY: The Minister joins us on ABC Sydney Mornings. Tanya Plibersek, good morning

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Good morning. It's great to be with you, Fran.

KELLY: Minister, how will knowing more about the lifecycle of a plastic bottle, for example, actually help improve the recycling rates?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, it's important for two reasons. The first is the manufacturers of food packaging, for example, say that they'd love to use more recycled content, but they have to be confident that it's not contaminated and particularly that it doesn't have harmful chemicals in it. So, it's a good way to boost the use of recycled content. And secondly, consumers are actually often willing to pay extra for products they know have higher recycled content or are better for the environment. We need to make sure that those products aren't being greenwashed, that when they make claims about being better for the environment, they actually are. So, this traceability framework - we're going to release a discussion paper, people be able to make comments until the end of August - but the whole aim is to see more and better recycling in Australia.

KELLY: Okay, so the traceability framework, it's called, I think, the Digital Product Passport. Tell me about it. What is it?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, it just means that businesses will be able to track recycled content from its origin through recycling, remanufacturing, distribution and retail.

KELLY: How do they track it though? Is there a QR code? What is it? How do they do that?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, one of the reasons that we're releasing the discussion paper is so people and industry can make comment about the best and most effective way of doing it. But this is not a unique idea. Other countries are moving in this direction as well. It actually - if we can fit in, I suppose, with a global movement here, that's even better. And we're working together with other countries through a High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution - wherever we can set international standards and have international information about where our recycled content is going or recycled content being used in packaging from overseas, that gives us greater confidence that A, we're getting what we're paying for and B, that there are no harmful chemicals or harmful plastic polymers included.

KELLY: And is this more about cracking down on companies greenwashing or more about trying to help our exporters be acceptable in that supply chain? Tell me about the companies greenwashing and how this would stop that.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, it's actually primarily to give companies the confidence that they can use recycled content in, for example, food packaging. You obviously don't want to put any harmful chemicals into the food packaging. You have to have a high-quality of plastic. You need to be confident of where that's come from, what the processes have been, what the inputs have been. And we really hope that that will encourage the big food manufacturers in particular to be more confident to use higher rates of recycled content. And they say they will if they have that sort of confidence.

KELLY: Okay, so is the barrier - for the big manufacturers - to using that kind of recycled plastic confidence, or is it cost?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think confidence is really important. And when it comes to cost, one of the things we're doing today, we'll also announce nine new recycling projects worth $11 million here in NSW. We are looking to double our recycling capacity in Australia by 2025. We will have the recycled content. We have to make sure that there is a market for that recycled content, and that means giving the users of the recycled content confidence. It means having high-quality modern systems for recycling. And we're also, of course, working with the states and territories to regulate packaging by 2025. As part of that regulatory process, we will be looking at things like targets for recycled content in plastic and other packaging.

KELLY: Is this about the global economy too, though? The UK is already taxing products that are not at least partially recycled. The European Union is considering a digital passport scheme for recycling. China's got a World Bank-funded recycling traceability scheme that they're going to roll out in a few years. If we don't do this, will we be a pariah? Or effectively, our products, our exports, won't be acceptable?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we want to be exporting to the world. I mean, we're engaged right now in a historic discussion with the European Union about a free trade agreement. We know that there are very high standards for packaging, for recycled content, for reducing plastic use, and, of course, for other environmental things like reducing land clearing as part of the supply chain for our food products. We need to have high environmental standards for our food products and the packages they come in to be able to trade into those high-value markets.

KELLY: Are you talking about a voluntary scheme here? Because you recently unveiled a similar scheme for the fashion industry - we were speaking about this here on Mornings last week - warning them they needed to get on board or face more serious regulation. Will the same warning be given here, or is it time to bypass the voluntary and just make sure this happens with a mandatory code?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, when it comes to packaging, we've already announced that we will be regulating packaging by 2025 with the states and territories. We're doing that work now. We give industries the opportunity to see if they can come up with their own solutions to increase recycling, to reduce waste, to better design their products so they can be repaired, reused, remanufactured. But if they don't come to the party, then of course it's important for governments to step up and take responsibility for regulation. So, for example, I've also announced that we'll be regulating solar panel waste and e-waste in the future. We've given those industries an opportunity to do it themselves or haven't done it themselves. So, we're going to need to step in and regulate.

KELLY: By 2025?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, we're doing that sooner. It's the food packaging that we're regulating by 2025, or packaging more generally, we're regulating by 2025.

KELLY: Minister, can I just ask you on another issue? Because we're going to be speaking to the Electoral Commissioner after nine here on Mornings. And today, the official Yes and No campaign pictures will be submitted to the AEC for distribution to more than 12 million households. The fact is, there is no requirement for these campaigns, yes or no or anyone in the whole running of this referendum, to actually tell the truth while campaigning. There is no watchdog. Should there be?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, I think this is something that we need to look at for the future. It is quite true that the cases as they're given to the Electoral Commission will be printed or published first electronically and then printed and distributed to households. But that is something we need to be aware of. It's important that we respond to any disinformation or misinformation about this campaign. But, you know Fran, I think the thing that's going to make much more difference than whatever is in the pamphlet, is the conversations that people have on doorsteps, with their colleagues at work, with their friends and their neighbours. And that's why I'll be out door-knocking on Saturday with my Labor Party branch members, conversation by conversation, doorstep by doorstep, seeking to convince people that there is everything to gain and nothing to fear from this referendum. That this is about two really important principles - it's about acknowledging that we've got 65,000 years of continuous history and culture in Australia to be proud of, and that we should listen to people when we're making decisions that affect their lives.

KELLY: This week, in fact, yesterday, the Prime Minister said the Yes campaign needs to be stronger in putting forward its case. Do you agree? Are you worried it hasn't been powerful enough in its arguments and you're worried the referendum won't pass, given what the polls are saying?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I know that there are passionate people working every day having those conversations on doorsteps, sitting next to people on the bus, over the water cooler at work. I know that that is happening. I very much hope that people aren't frightened off by the negativity of Peter Dutton and those other voices that are saying that this is somehow dangerous. The same people who said that if land rights were passed, if we had Mabo, people would be coming for your backyard and your farm, are running the same sort of scare campaigns today. And it is disappointing. But I'm very confident that the goodwill and the generosity of Australians will triumph and we will have a yes vote in the referendum.

KELLY: The truth of the matter is, though, that a lot of Australians, it's not about goodwill or negativity, it's simply about their focus on cost of living. A poll today says 50 per cent of voters that's the number one concern for them. Are you worried that the focus required to support a Yes campaign will be seen by a lot of voters as the government being distracted from their cost-of-living pressures?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We can walk and chew gum at the same time. There is no question that cost of living is a huge issue for Australians. That's why we're doing things like dropping the cost of childcare from the 1st of July. It's why we've halved the cost of medicines for millions of Australians. It's why we've given an energy rebate. It's interesting that the Liberals and Nationals say they care about cost of living. They voted against the energy rebate and they're campaigning against cheaper medicines for Australians. So, give me a break. If they want to talk about cost of living, maybe they should get on board with this and maybe they should get out of the way and let us build the tens of thousands of additional houses we want to build through the Housing Australia Future Fund, and do something about the extraordinary rent costs that people are also facing.

KELLY: Okay, Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for joining us.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Great to talk to you, Fran.