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

Friday, 23 May 2003

Subject: Plastic Bags and Water Efficiency Labelling

DR KEMP: This has been a very constructive meeting of the Environment Protection and Heritage Ministerial Council. We have considered quite a number of targets today that will be of interest to the community. I'm going to mention just a few of those. The items I suppose of interest today are to do with air quality…getting rid of carcinogenic small particles, to do with water efficiency labeling and to do with plastic bags.

I'll come to the plastic bags issue in a moment. I'll first make a comment about the air quality issue. It is well known now through science that there are a number of ingredients in petrol and other substances such as benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde which are carcinogenic. These appear in the air as very small particles which can lodge in the lung and cause very significant health problems. Today the Ministers have decided to introduce a new national environment protection measure to deal with this issue by issuing national advisory guidelines for these toxic substances.

This is law now in the country - the Ministers signed off on this so this is quite a significant decision that the Ministers have taken. They signed the documents during the course of the meeting so Australians can now have greater confidence that effective action is being taken to deal with these carcinogenic substances, in fuel and other substances.

I want to make a comment now about plastic bags. Over the last few days and weeks the Retailers Association has been working on a draft Code of Conduct in relation to plastic bags that Ministers asked for at their last meeting in December.

I regret to say that the retailers have been unable to agree on a code that is satisfactory from the point of view of Ministers. After December, Ministers set a number of targets for reduction in the use of plastic bags, for the recycling of plastic bags, and set a target also - as a challenge target - for the general community to reduce plastic bags in litter.

The targets were that retailers should aim by the end of next year to reduce the number of plastic bags used by 50%, to recycle 50% of all plastic bags, and to have the participation of 75% of all major retailers in Australia in this system.

The Ministers also set a challenge target for the community as a whole of 75% reduction in plastic bags in litter. But we have asked the retailers of Australia to get together and decide on a Code of Conduct that will achieve these targets.

Ministers yesterday were provided with the third draft code and having looked at that third draft code, the unanimous conclusion is that it doesn't do the job. And so far the retailers of Australia have not come up with a satisfactory plan to achieve the targets that were set by Ministers.

This is a matter of concern to the Ministers and it is a matter of concern to the community. The Australian community expects that there will be significant action taken by retailers to reduce the use of plastic bags, in particular plastic bags in litter. Out of the 6-7 billion plastic bags that are produced in Australia each year, about 80 million of these are on their way into the litter stream. It is very important that there be opportunities for people to recycle plastic bags, it is important that there be opportunities for them to use alternatives to plastic bags and so far, Ministers have not seen in the draft code that has been produced by the Retailers Association the kind of actions that will give them some confidence that this will actually occur. As a result of this, the Ministers agreed today in principle to pursue nationally coordinated mandatory measures and Ministers in July this year will be meeting to address the issue of what kind of mandatory measures are likely to produce better outcomes.

We want to be fair about this. We think this is a great opportunity for Australian retailers, particularly the major retailers in this country, to show that they are serious in addressing what is a significant environmental issue. So Ministers have said to the retail industry today that if they come back with a stronger code and a plan that will effectively reach the targets that have been set by Ministers, then Ministers are prepared to consider this and make an assessment of what the retailers are proposing.

But Ministers are quite clear that if retailers don't come up with a satisfactory plan then they are going to have to pursue nationally coordinated mandatory targets and those mandatory measures will be on the table in July. So in July Ministers will have on the table before them options for various mandatory measures that could be taken. South Australia has advocated a ban on plastic bags, Victoria as we know is advocating a levy on plastic bags, other states have different views about what the appropriate action should be but there is general agreement amongst all the Ministers that this should be a nationally coordinated approach, and that the retail industry needs to take this very seriously.

I believe that the Australian community won't be satisfied with anything less than effective action on plastic bags. People don't want to see plastic bags flowing around the country, not only creating an unpleasant litter stream but also really damaging the environment, damaging wildlife particularly marine wildlife. This is a serious issue for this country and we would like to see it taken seriously by Australian retailers.

QUESTION: What mandatory measures do you favour?

DR KEMP: Well at the moment we've asked officials to go away and work through a list of the possible mandatory measures so what we will be doing in July is considering what the various options may be.

QUESTION: But do you have a preference?

DR KEMP: Well the Commonwealth Government will be considering along with the States and Territories the range of options that have been presented.

QUESTION: And would any new rule come into force in July…..inaudible

DR KEMP: Well that again depends on the procedures in the various states. I mean clearly there will be a need for Ministers to take possible courses of action back to their Cabinets. I think the important thing to come out of today is that Ministers are really very concerned about the current situation and are very keen to see tougher action taken.

QUESTION: If the retailers with their considerable resources couldn't get it right in three drafts, how confident are you they will get it right in four?

DR KEMP: Well I think Ministers today were hopeful that they have fired a shot across the bow of the Retailers Association. They want to indicate that they are serious about this and we would like to give the retailers the opportunity to come up with a plan that is going to work.

QUESTION: How would you categorise the three drafts they have come up with so far, are they close to the mark or woefully inadequate?

DR KEMP: Well each draft is successively stronger than the draft before it. And we believe there is good will on the part of the retailers. They tell us they are serious about it but so far they haven't been able to commit this to paper in a code of conduct. We want to see a document which actually puts on the table the measures that they actually propose to take. I am going to be writing today, in fact I have written to the Retailers Association, putting before them the decisions and views of the Ministerial Council and we have a got a copy of this letter which we can circulate.

QUESTION: From your experience, the research and what has happened elsewhere in the world, what do you think of a levy?

DR KEMP: Well a levy is an option which has worked in Ireland. A levy has certain costs associated with it. It would probably mean ultimately higher costs for retailers and therefore higher prices, so that has to be considered. There needs to be a better understanding of the alternatives. There's very good research going on at the moment into improved biodegradability and I think one of the longer term solutions...hopefully is that plastic bags will be replaced by biodegrabable bags. The South Australian Government believes a ban is the appropriate way to go, that that in fact would be a cheaper way for retailers to deal with it but again there will be costs associated with that so that's why Ministers want to see a full outline of the mandatory options available.

QUESTION: What specific measures are you looking for in this strengthened code?

DR KEMP: Look, we're looking for concrete actions that will be taken by retailers that hold out a realistic prospect that they will be able to meet the targets that Ministers have set in the Ministerial Council.

QUESTION: The Australian retailers have said that a levy would cost the average shopper about $150 per year. Do you think that Australians are serious enough about reducing plastic bags to pay something like that?

DR KEMP: Well I think that is one of the concerns of a number of the Ministers um, that that's not the only option that is available because you certainly have to look at the impact of any measure that would be adopted on the cost of their shopping to retailers and the cost therefore that would flow through to the consumer.

QUESTION: You said that Ministers had fired a shot across the bow…something drastic needs to happen this year, doesn't it?

DR KEMP: Well the Ministers are going to be looking at these mandatory measures in July so retailers now are being given a time frame by Ministers to come back with a Code of Conduct that is going to offer a realistic prospect of reaching the targets.

QUESTION: Did retailers make representations to today's (meeting)?

DR KEMP: What we have coming through from the retailers is the draft Code of Conduct.

QUESTION: They didn't appear?

DR KEMP: No they didn't appear.

...We are going to have a release on water efficiency labelling. Clearly water is one of the major national priorities which Australia is now facing and the national government and the state governments clearly feel that a major contribution can be made to addressing Australia's water problems by greater efficiency in the use of appliances. What we are looking at is a national scheme for water labelling, the nature of the scheme still has to be developed - whether it's a five star scheme or some other scheme remains to be determined - but consumers have got a right to know that when they buy a product that uses water, whether it's a shower or a toilet, a washing machine, what the water efficiency use of this product is. And a water efficiency scheme which is national and therefore can be used efficiently by manufacturers is obviously got capacity to make a very significant contribution to efficient use of Australia's scarce water.

QUESTION: What timeframes are you looking at for that to come into place?

DR KEMP: Well again we don't think this needs to drift on for a long time. We've asked for a report on the best way to introduce this nationally coordinated approach but again Ministers are keen to see this happen very soon and I would expect that when Ministers return at the end of the year they will have before them a clear proposal on the matter.

Thanks very much

Commonwealth of Australia