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Transcript
Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

Doorstop Interview
Monday, 23 December 2002

Issue of Plastic Bags


David Kemp:

There was a meeting held this morning by tele-conference of the Environment and Heritage Ministerial Council. The Ministerial Council includes the Commonwealth and the State Governments, so all the State Environment Ministers and the Commonwealth met this morning by tele-conference to discuss the issue of plastic bags.

We said after the last full Ministerial Council Meeting that we would come back on the 23rd of December in order to receive two reports on the management of the plastic bag problem.

One of these reports was a report from the working group with the National Packaging Covenant Council which includes retailers and environmental groups and experts from various Government departments, and that report which I've released ... both these reports have been released today. That's the plastic bags ... shopping bags one, and that's the ... they're on the Web. We'll give you the Web address if you need them.

The report from the plastic bags working group recommended a range of actions, not just one single response, but a range of actions to deal with the problem of plastic bags and their impact on the environment.

And there was a report also from an independent consultant, Nolan-ITU, which ... whom we asked to report back to us assessing levies on plastic bags and the sort of environmental impacts that levies could be expected to have.

Now, in the light of these reports, the Ministers have made a number of decisions today on the way forward. All governments believe that this is a problem which needs to be tackled with a sense of urgency.

The first decision the Ministers took was to continue to develop legislative options, including a possible plastic bag levy and a possible ban on plastic bags. That was done in the context of the industry agreeing to develop a strong national code of practice by April, next year.

We were heartened by the willingness of the retail industry to address this issue seriously, and the range of options that the industry put forward we believe should be tried. There's a real level of commitment there to inform customers to provide recycling options for customers, to provide alternatives to plastic bags and to report on targets and performance.

So the Ministers were pleased with the response of the industry and particularly with its recommendation to develop a national code of practice for all retailers, and we'll seek to get as many retailers as possible, hopefully all the chains and a percentage of the smaller retailers to subscribe to the national code of practice.

Ministers also believe that retailers should be challenged to meet a number of targets over the next two years, and the targets agreed by Ministers were to recycle 50 per cent of the plastic bags that are used in supermarkets, a 50 per cent reduction in the number of plastic bags used and a 90 per cent participation rate by retail chains and 25 per cent participation rate of smaller retailers in the national code of practice.

Ministers also decided that it would be desirable to have a goal for the community as a whole which is really an aspirational goal, and that goal is to reduce plastic bag litter by 75 per cent over the next two years.

Fourthly, Ministers agreed that there should be a national customer and retail awareness program and that there would be strong support for programs such as Clean Up Australia's Bag Yourself A Better Environment.

And, finally, that there should be a comprehensive study into the impact of degradability of plastic bags on the environment, including the effect on having degradable bags on recycling, on local manufacturing and on their use in land fills, and as part of that it was agreed that there would be a national standard for the use of degradable plastics developed by December, 2004.

So there was a range of actions that Ministers agreed to today. They set challenging targets that went beyond the reports that we'd received. Ministers felt that it was necessary to have those targets, and alongside that Ministers all agreed to develop further legislative options, including a possible levy on plastic bags.

Now, I'm happy to take any questions.

Question:

These are just targets at the moment. I mean, do you think at the end of the period, if nothing ... well, if the results aren't good enough, then there'll be perhaps some tougher measures? I mean, a ban on plastic bags is a pretty draconian one.

David Kemp:

Yes. Well, we wanted to continue to look at the implications of putting a levy on, and certainly all governments and the community are looking for significant progress.

The significant progress hopefully will occur. We'll be monitoring that at the end of next year, so at the end of 2003 we'll get a report back on the progress towards meeting the targets, and then that will tell us whether we're on track to meet the targets by the end of 2004.

Ministers felt that Australia had a very strong culture of recycling. Our performance in recycling is much better than other countries. It's much better, for example, than in Ireland, and the press release sets out some figures on that which shows the willingness with which Australians have taken up the challenge to recycle, and so Ministers felt that there was a really good prospect that these targets could be met with a strong effort by industry and by the community.

Question:

But at the moment, they're just sort of ... they're just goals that the Government is aspiring to.

David Kemp:

Well, the targets have two ... formed into two categories. There are those targets which are set for recycling and for reduction in the number of plastic bags used, and those targets will be clearly monitored as we go. They're targets in which industry has a very big stake, and if the process of recycling and reaching those targets is not satisfactory, then obviously Ministers would be looking more closely at the legislative options.

The other target which is an aspirational target to reduce the number of plastic bags in litter by 75 per cent is one that will be backed by strong public awareness campaigns, and that will be the purpose of those campaigns.

And, again, we'll be sampling litter and seeing whether or not that target is in process of being reached by the end of next year, and then if further measures are necessary then we'll consider those measures as well.

Question:

Is it perhaps considered that a levy is perhaps a little bit unpalatable? Is that why you're looking at other options first?

David Kemp:

Well, the levy proposal is one which is ... has to be investigated in terms of how it would operate in terms of Australia's constitutional allocation of responsibilities, how it would be administered. There are many different forms of levy. What kind of levy, if any, would be appropriate?

And Ministers wanted to inform themselves about a full range of options there. Having the investigation on development of those legislative options going on is an indication that governments take it seriously, but Ministers also wanted to give the retailers a chance to pick up the ball, as it were, and run with it, because they are showing a great deal of keenness to have an impact on plastic bag litter and on recycling, and industry leadership is welcomed, and so we wanted to encourage that.

But in the background, there is the prospect that if these targets are not met and we're not making further progress, then obviously governments would consider some tougher options.

Question:

So this is the first step in, I guess, the inevitable path towards a levy some time in the future, maybe some years off, but some time in the future.

David Kemp:

Well, it depends very much on how the community responds and how technology moves. I mean, clearly, we're also moving towards degradability of plastic bags. There are plastic bags currently being produced which have got 50 per cent recycled material in them. That's a very significant step forward.

There's a lot of research going on into degradability of plastic bags. At present, we don't have any degradable bag which seems to meet all the requirements. For example, even degradable bags can last for up to 18 months in the environment, so that's still a nuisance as litter and it's still damaging to the environment, even though the bag is ultimately degradable.

Some degradable bags just break up, and so instead of one bag in the environment, you have lots of bits of bags and that's not necessarily an environmental improvement either.

So we're investigating these various options, and what the long-term holds depends on how each of these works out.

Question:

So this is perhaps a warning then that ... a warning to both retailers and consumers that if you don't clean up your act, then I suppose a more draconian approach to reducing bags will be on the horizon.

David Kemp:

Well, it's really a statement that we've got confidence in the community and in the retailers that we will be able to make progress, but in the end, of course, we have to see how this works out.

I'm very confident that the community cares deeply about this issue. There's a lot of public concern about it. We've heard that in the various media over the last few months when the issue's been highlighted, and with a strong campaign by Clean Up Australia which peaks in March, next year, I would expect to see quite a substantial impact on the litter problem.

The problem with plastic bags is very much a problem of littering. There is something like 6.9 billion bags produced in Australia every year, and of these about 50 to 80 million find their way into the litter stream. Now, it's when they're in the litter that they cause the most serious environmental problems, and so the objective is really to keep bags out of the litter.

Reducing the absolute usage of bags is one way of doing that, but so is care and concern for the environment on the part of everybody who uses a plastic bag.

Question:

Dr. Kemp, what do you do personally then to reduce bag use?

David Kemp:

Well, it's important to use as many items as possible in one bag, rather than having a number of bags. One of the things that you can do and that I certainly do is to refuse to have a plastic bag if you don't need one, and another thing, of course, you can do is to use a calico bag or some other bag, or reuse a bag.

And I'm pleased to say that many people in the community do reuse plastic bags. One survey has shown that about 75 per cent of people actually do reuse their plastic bag in some form, generally as a bin liner, and they use that to contain their rubbish and that goes into land fills, and if that's properly managed then there shouldn't be a littering problem and there isn't really a long lasting environmental problem from that either.

Presenter:

There's just another issue to address before we wind up.

Co-Presenter:

Yes, the Victorian Government National Heritage Trust.

David Kemp:

Okay, yes. Now, Victoria has put out today a press release saying that the Commonwealth has slashed environmental funding for Victoria. It's the first press release that I'm aware of from the new Environment Minister, John Thwaites, although it's rather similar to press releases issued before he became Environment Minister, so he may have a problem in his advisers.

But the reality is that Commonwealth funding for the environment in Victoria is going up year by year, and the figures on this are quite clear. The funding, last year, 2001-2, was $39.9 million. It's up to nearly $45 million this year, and it's going to increase to some $50 million next year.

And that funding includes funding from the Natural (sic) Heritage Trust, from the National Action Plan on Salinity. It includes funds such as those distributed to community groups through the Australian Government Enviro Fund.

And they reflect the growing importance that the Commonwealth Government places on addressing the salinity issue.

Now, what Victoria has done is simply take one figure out of one program and represent it as if somehow or other this were the total of Commonwealth funding to Victoria, and that's not the case.

Question:

Could I just ask on another issue, there's been a call today for an increased fine for people littering with cigarettes, especially given that it's bushfire season. What's your feeling on that? Should there be increased fines for people littering with cigarettes, or is it at the moment sufficient?

David Kemp:

Well, this is not a matter that is just an environmental issue. There are environmental issues involved, but they're also community safety issues, and the decision about fines on cigarette butts is not a matter for the Commonwealth Environment portfolio. It's a matter for those who are concerned with preventing bushfires and damaging people's property and people's lives, so that's a matter presumably being raised by those who are responsible for that.

There's no doubt that cigarette butts are an important part of the general litter problem, and campaigns to encourage people not to litter would be directed in part, of course, to encouraging people not to litter cigarette butts, because they're a significant element in the litter stream.

End

Commonwealth of Australia