Interview – RN Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas

Plastic recycling industry, Cooperative Research Centres Projects, Pacific Islands Forum

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews was interviewed by Patricia Karvelas on Radio National Breakfast.

Patricia Karvelas: A federal deal with states and territories to work towards banning the export of recyclable waste was the key achievement of last week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, that COAG meeting on the Friday. But in order to reach that goal, Australia will need to develop its own recycling industry and that’s no small task.

Today, the Morrison Government is announcing $20 million in funding for projects to grow that domestic recycling industry. This funding will be made available through Cooperative Research Centres Project grants which opened today. Karen Andrews is the Minister for Science, Industry and Technology and joins us this morning. Welcome to RN Breakfast.

Karen Andrews: Good morning Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: According to the Government's own figures, just 12 per cent of 103 kilos of plastic waste generated per person every year in Australia is recycled and most of that is sent overseas. How much of that plastic waste do you want to see recycled?

Karen Andrews: Well I can't put a figure on it but clearly it needs to be significantly more than 12 per cent – it needs to be much, much higher. I’ve got to say, I was shocked when I saw the figures about how poor Australia was with recycling its plastic products.

So the $20 million in funding that we're unlocking today is going to go a long way towards making sure that we're doing two things – one is dealing with the environmental issues associated with plastic, and secondly, building Australia's waste recycling industry. So it's got multiple bonuses for Australia with this funding.

The CRCP – the Cooperative Research Centre Projects – are short term, so they're for a maximum of three years. So they're very targeted, they're aimed at small and medium enterprises and those enterprises working alongside our researchers to make sure that we're maximising innovative solutions to, in this case, waste recycling in Australia.

Patricia Karvelas: So how long will it take and how much will it cost to grow the domestic recycling industry to be able to recycle all the waste that's going overseas?

Karen Andrews: Well there is already some recycling that's being done in Australia and it's quite significant. For example, we are recycling soft plastic, glass and road waste as well as hard plastics into new roads. So that's already happening now, so the more that we can do of that the better. But there would be many other uses for recycled materials and what I'm wanting to do with this funding is unlock those opportunities so that we can actually continue to world-lead in recycling products. Now, we have been very innovative. What our issue has been is that the amount that we've been recycling is nowhere near the level that it needs to be.

Patricia Karvelas: Yes, and you won't put a sort of target on that, as we talked about that 12 per cent. Can you give me an indication of the Government's ambitions here? Do you want to get up to something like 50 per cent?

Karen Andrews: Yes. Look, and for some materials we do recycle about 50 per cent anyway, so that would be an achievable target. What we've got to work out is the timeframe for that to happen.

Patricia Karvelas: So you would like to get up from 12 to 50 per cent?

Karen Andrews: Yes. But what we’ve got to look at is what the timeframe for that is going to be and it’s a medium to longer term solution – it's not going to be a short term fix. So whilst these projects will run for three years, it will be ambitious to say that we will hit a 50 per cent target for plastic recycling by that point.

But there's multiple prongs to this. There’s certainly the project funding that we're unlocking today, but there's also a lot of work that's happening on the ground with many organisations and particularly at schools where they're focusing – and the students themselves at schools are focusing – on ways to recycle, whether that be plastic or that be your disposable coffee cups. So the younger generation coming through is very, very focused on recycling and that's going to have an impact.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, isn't it the case that while the Government made this big announcement at COAG, the truth is many countries just won't take our waste anymore – we're actually at a crisis point aren't we?

Karen Andrews: Well, there are of course multiple reasons for us doing what we're doing now, which is unlocking funding for plastic recycling. One of those is issues with our waste going offshore and I don't want to see our waste go offshore. I want us to build our waste recycling industry because we know that it creates as many as three times more jobs in Australia if we’re recycling our own waste rather than sending it offshore. So, that's got to be a priority for our economy. So that will boost our economy. It will create more jobs if we recycle here.

So, yes. We're responding to our own needs to build a waste recycling industry, as well as issues with waste going offshore and waste ending up in our oceans – and no one wants that to happen.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, the Australian Recycling Council says the Government could vastly improve the uptake of recycled materials by mandating their use in the construction of things like roads. Is that something the Government is willing to consider?

Karen Andrews: Look, I don’t think we're at that point yet...

Patricia Karvelas: But why not, given it would make such a dramatic change?

Karen Andrews: Because there's already a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of interest in going further with recycling. And industry has an opportunity to continue to lead on this, and quite frankly, they are.

The $20 million that we're unlocking today will go towards building that momentum, but I'm going to be talking about waste recycling. I know that Sussan Ley talks about waste recycling, Scott Morrison is talking about waste recycling, and we’re sending some very clear messages to industry that that's where our focus is going to be.

Patricia Karvelas: Sure, but they say that the Government is the largest purchaser. Couldn't you do that immediately? It's not just about mandating it for the commercial- the industry, but actually the work that the Government does.

Karen Andrews: Well look, at this point in time we're focused on working with industry and working with our research organisations to make sure that we are getting innovative solutions. So I would much rather focus on broadening the opportunities for waste recycling, building our industry, building the jobs and then potentially look at what some of the opportunities may be further down the track.

But at this point in time, I want to build our industries. I want to make sure that we're at the leading edge of waste recycling.

Patricia Karvelas: And Minister, what's going to happen to our waste in the meantime? We talked about the immediate crisis on our hands in terms of not being able to send it overseas anymore because of what we've seen – this crisis in our industry. What happens in the meantime?

Karen Andrews: So, I guess one of the important things to come out of COAG in this area is that there's a commitment by the environment ministers across Australia to work together about what the timelines would be for that to happen.

So I know that Sussan Ley is very committed in this space and she will be working with the state and territory ministers to work through what those timelines would be. And hopefully by the end of this year we'll be in a better position to say publicly what the timelines will be.

Patricia Karvelas: $20 million is what you're announcing today. Given the scale of this challenge, is $20 million really a significant investment? It's not actually, in the grand scheme of things, a lot of money. Are you prepared to spend more to get this industry off the ground?

Karen Andrews: It's a very targeted investment that we're making in our small and medium enterprises and our research organisations. We have many other businesses and many other publicly funded organisations that work in waste recycling and work in innovative material solutions. So, CSIRO for example is doing work in that area.

So it's not just a stand-alone $20 million. This is an additional 20 million targeted dollars, to look at small and medium enterprises and research organisations developing innovative waste recycling opportunities.

Patricia Karvelas: And later in the week the Prime Minister is heading to the Pacific Islands Forum where we know climate change is a significant issue. I know this is one of the answers he plans to provide on the issues that they raise. But this is – well, if I can use an appropriate term – is a drop in the ocean, isn't it, given what those leaders are asking for given the existential threat they're facing to their survival?

Karen Andrews: Well, the Prime Minister is heading into the Pacific later this week. I think tomorrow, I'm not sure, I think it is tomorrow that he heads to the Pacific region. He's very committed to making sure that we are supporting our nearest neighbours which is the Pacific region. We’re part of the Pacific. We want to assist them with addressing the concerns that they have. So the Prime Minister does have a very extensive announcement. And of course, much of the research work that we're doing in Australia could well have applications for the Pacific region. So from a research perspective and from our organisations’ point of view, which includes the Australian Institute of Marine Science as well as the CSIRO, I'm very happy to work cooperatively with our Pacific neighbours to make sure that we are coming up with some good environmental solutions.

Patricia Karvelas: Karen Andrews, thank you for joining us this morning.

Karen Andrews: It's a pleasure.

Patricia Karvelas: Karen Andrews is the Minister for Science, Industry and Technology.