ABC RN Breakfast interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

HAMISH MACDONALD, HOST: This is RN Breakfast, a very good morning to you. Well, we know plastic is detrimental to the environment, but we don't seem to be able to shake our obsession with making and buying all things plastic, and here in Australia we are still having great difficulty with recycling effectively.

Over the weekend, the Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, was involved in leading negotiations for a Global Plastics Treaty in Paris. But back home of course with the collapse of soft plastic recycling firm, REDcycle, and warehouses filling up with used bottles and paper with nowhere to go there are some urgent problems that need solutions. Tanya Plibersek is back from overseas. Good morning, welcome to the program.

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

MACDONALD: The treaty aims to end plastic pollution by 2040, including a legally binding target to phase out plastic waste products by 2025, that's just a year and a half away. How are we supposed to do that given where we're at?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we do have a long way to go in Australia. We set some very ambitious targets under the previous Government, but we didn't do much towards implementing them. So we've really had to get our skates on domestically. We've invested $250 million in new recycling facilities with $60 million in the previous October budget specifically for hard to recycle plastics like those soft plastics you mentioned.

So we've got about 48 new recycling facilities being built, about 12 of them have already been delivered. That almost doubles our recycling capacity by 2025, and yet we will still need to do more, so we've made sure that both the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and our new National Reconstruction Fund have the capacity to invest in new recycling and remanufacturing facilities, but also in alternatives to plastic.

I mean there's a lot of exciting work being done on basically replacing plastic packaging with materials made from things like kelp or algae or corn starch, sugar cane, there's a bunch of other things that people are experimenting with. If we can get some of those replacement materials up and going at an industrial scale, that would be great, because as you're growing them you're sucking carbon dioxide out of the environment and not putting it into the environment as you do with petrochemical based plastics.

So we've got the CSIRO working on a plan to end plastic waste, we're working with the chief scientist, I've got a Ministerial Advisory Group to advance the circular economy as well, and that's really important, because about 70 per cent of waste is locked in at the design phase of an object, so if we can change the design of things to recycle, to be using less problematic plastics in the first place, again, we reduce our overall plastic pollution.


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: An important thing   I was just going to say one more thing. The important thing is to get some national consistency in this stuff, because we've got really quite different recycling protocols in different states and territories and even at council level there's a lot of inconsistencies here, so we actually need to work together nationally to get that done.

MACDONALD: But as you acknowledge, much of what you've just described are plans, and I'm interested in the fact that you've been working with international bodies to try and get an agreement, but countries like Saudi Arabia, China, even the US have been resisting calls for a legally binding target, they want countries to be able to set their own targets. How can you convince other countries to agree to this stuff when Australia, itself, has had such difficulty in delivering on its expectations?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, in fact it's easier. If we come to an international agreement it's easier for every country to get there. But the really bizarre thing, or almost bizarre thing at this plastics treaty, we're having international companies that are big producers of plastic waste, like Unilever and Nestle and Coca Cola, turning up and saying, "just regulate". You know, it's actually easier for businesses that are big producers of plastic waste to reduce their reliance on plastic if there's a legally binding international instrument, because that consistency allows them to invest in and make the changes they need to make to their business model to get there. So it's quite an unusual thing, I have to say, as a Minister, to have large companies saying, "just regulate".

MACDONALD: But don't these other countries point at you and say, "Well, look, you've got problems yourselves, you're sending stuff off overseas to be recycled, you've got trucks turning up and picking up recycling and taking it straight to landfill."  I mean the stories are almost relentless about the problems in our recycling systems.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, and I think it is important to acknowledge that we've still got a way to go as a nation, but that strong international ambition gives us something to aim for and countries to cooperate with. And that helps all of us get there.

I mean we're entering into Free Trade Agreements; we're working on one with Europe at the moment. By working cooperatively with Europe, we lift our ambition here in Australia because they've got higher standards on some of the recycling and plastic   types of plastic and plastic additives. If we can align domestically with some of those European targets, of course that helps us domestically.

So working internationally helps us in Australia, and I certainly didn't go to Paris saying everybody should do what Australia's doing at the moment. I'm the first to acknowledge that we've inherited a situation where we really need to lift our game domestically, but we're investing to do that.

It actually takes a while to build a new recycling facility, and we've got 48 of them. We've got 12 that have already been opened. We will close to double our recycling capacity by 2025.

The most recent PET plastic bottle decision I made to allow PET plastic bottles to be shipped overseas to be recycled overseas, that won't have to happen in the future, because we'll be increasing our plastic recycling capacity here in Australia. We've got to get those facilities built. I'm visiting these new facilities as they open. It's really exciting that we're getting this work done, but it takes a while to build a new facility.

MACDONALD: Tanya Plibersek, we had the Greens leader Adam Bandt on this program yesterday accusing your Government of giving sweetheart deals to the Woodside led project for gas on the Northwest Shelf of WA because of the fact that they won't be exposed to these changes to the Petroleum Resources Rent Tax, and essentially won't be forced to pay more tax on it. Is that a fair assessment, a sweetheart deal?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, no, it's the sort of thing that you'd expect from Adam Bandt, but we've been working very hard  

MACDONALD: Why don't they have to pay these additional taxes?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We're working really hard in Australia to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. We've got a legislated pathway to get there. We'll reduce our emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, we  

MACDONALD: Sure. But on the specifics of this, respectfully  

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No Government has done more to get us to   on the path to net zero than this Government, and I'm really proud of that.

MACDONALD: But what about this particular case? Why has this project been exempted from paying those additional taxes?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, if you want to talk about specific decisions made in the budget about the tax regime, you might want to get the Treasurer on the program.

MACDONALD: Sure, we have invited him on. You're the Environment Minister, and clearly these matters overlap somewhat with your areas. Do you think it's right that a Woodside led project for gas on the North-western Shelf shouldn't be paying these additional taxes?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: What I think is right is that we get Australia to net zero carbon emissions, and we are on a path to do that. It is really important that both in Australia and globally we get to net zero. Of course that has an impact on the environment, and that's why we passed our net zero legislation, that's why we've got our Safeguard Mechanism up and running, that's why we've signed the methane pledge, that's why I've legislated stronger ozone protection, that's why we're investing in making sure that Australians can buy electric vehicles if they want to, it's why we're seeing a massive increase in investment in renewable energy projects. I've doubled the approvals of renewable energy projects. It's why we're investing $20 billion in upgrading our transmission lines so that our electricity grid can handle the new amount of renewables that we're putting into the grid. It's why we're acting to get carbon emissions down in Australia.

MACDONALD: On the PwC issue, obviously that's going to be before Senate Estimates again today, we'll be hearing from the Tax Practitioners Board, it's being investigated by the AFP. Does your department have contracts with PwC? Do you have faith in PwC to deliver them?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah. One of the very first things obviously I did as a Minister when I saw this story was check whether we've got contracts. We do have a small number of small value contracts, and I've asked the Secretary of the Department to meet with PwC and make sure that there are strict controls around those contracts to ensure that they're being done in an ethical way. This is obviously a very concerning development. It does come as a result, I think, of the fact that the previous Government, you know, pretended to be cutting the number of public servants. Well, in fact they did cut the number of public servants but they replaced them with a whole lot of people on these short-term contracts in 2020-21, they spent $21 billion on outsourcing work that, you know, much of which could have more probably been done by public servants.

In my own department we had hundreds of people on short term contracts doing ongoing work. So we've made those people permanent, and the Government will continue to work to make sure that contractors, where they are used, are used in an ethical way.

MACDONALD: Tanya Plibersek, we'll have to leave it there. Appreciate your time this morning. Thank you very much.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Thanks Hamish, see you.