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

Doorstop Interview
Friday, 1 August 2003

Subject: Ministerial Conference on Plastic Bags

DAVID KEMP: [Technical Interruption] …Certain targets that they wanted the retailers to achieve. There have been very extensive discussions between the retailers and all ministers over the intervening period since the last ministerial meeting, and the retailers have now agreed to meet the target of a 50 per cent reduction in use in plastic bags.

They will achieve that within the next two years by 2005. They have agreed to fully and strongly support the community target of a 75 per cent reduction in plastic bags in litter, working with Clean Up Australia and working with the relevant campaigns to promote public awareness of the importance of plastic bags in the litter stream.

They've also agreed effectively -- and I won't go into the details of this -- but they've also agreed effectively to the recycling of all available plastic bags that come back to them and to strongly promote the recycling of plastic bags in their stores. They clearly want to get customers to recycle bags where they're not being reused and that the retailers will undertake to make sure that those bags are put through into the recycling stream.

Ministers were pleased at the progress that's been made with this code, and they've welcomed the code. They intend, however, to write back to the retailers and say that they want certain matters to be clarified in the code. The ministers are also very keen to see an ultimate commitment to the phasing out of the light, single use, HDP plastic bag.

That's the plastic bag that's usually used in the retail stores, and they will be going back to the retailers and asking the retailers during the implementation of the code, which will take place until the end of 2005, to consider how plastic bags can be completely phased out. That is, the single-use bags. Multiple use bags are a different proposition, they're not the same problem in the litter stream and they may have a continuing role.

But certainly the ministers would like to see a strong commitment from the retailers for the phasing out of these plastic bags, the single use bags, within five years, and that's what they will be going back to the retailers and seeking to work out with the retailers in the course of the implementation of the code that has been put forward.

QUESTION: But for the moment the retailers have agreed to reduce this … their use by 50 per cent by 2005. Is 75 per cent [indistinct]?

KEMP: The 75 per cent reduction is the community target for the reduction of plastic bags in the litter stream. The retailers have said they are prepared to make a very substantial contribution to the public campaign to reach that target. That's very welcome to the ministers because that is a very important aspect of the whole problem. The litter problem is a very important aspect of the whole plastic bag environmental problem and I'm very pleased that the retailers have committed themselves to strongly support now that public awareness campaign.

QUESTION: How will they achieve the 50 per cent reduction? What do they plan to put in place?

KEMP: Well one of the major ways is through staff training. It's clear that many more items can be put in plastic bags than are put in as a standard matter at the supermarket check out. With proper training of staff there's no doubt that the total number of plastic bags used can be very significantly reduced.

QUESTION: The Retailer's Association as I understand it only represents about 50 per cent of the retailers in Australia. What about the other 50 per cent? How do they … what's being done to get them on board as well?

KEMP: The ministers will be asking the Retailer's Association to conduct a very aggressive campaign to bring in the smaller retailers and to get as many signatories to the code as is practicable.

QUESTION: What if they don't meet the target?

KEMP: Well, if they don't meet the target, the ministers will be telling the retailers that they will revive the option of mandatory measures and they will continue work in any case on these mandatory measures so if the targets are not met, if the code is not being implemented, then the mandatory measures are back on the table.

QUESTION: There's been a push for some time, as you know, for a levy. What couldn't you reach a decision to actually introduce a levy?

KEMP: Well, all the states have been looking very closely at these options as you know, and some states have favoured a possible levy. Some states have rejected a levy. Queensland, for example, has rejected the levy because it doesn't believe, like the Commonwealth, in increased taxation.

It's … all in favour of keeping taxes where they are or reducing them, rather than raising taxes in the future, and also, I think there is a view amongst some, not everybody, that a levy doesn't address all the relevant issues, and that it's not necessarily going to achieve in Australia, what it has achieved in at least one or two countries overseas.

When public opinion surveys have been taken of customers about what their reaction to a levy might be, many, many customers say that they would pay the levy but they'd still continue to use the plastic bags. And that would mean that we would not be addressing effectively the litter problem.

So when the states, all Labor states at the moment, discussed this matter amongst themselves, it was impossible for them to reach agreement on a single approach, but I am nevertheless very confident that the approach that we have reached in the course of the discussion between ministers this afternoon, is going to see a major change in the way in which Australia addresses the plastic bag issue.

QUESTION: How is it going to be monitored? How is it going to be counted?

KEMP: Well this is another very important aspect of it. There's got to be very clear monitoring of the use of plastic bags against a baseline so that we can tell whether the reductions are actually being achieved. This monitoring needs to be by an external independent body so that we're not just relying on anecdotal evidence here. This is going to be a properly monitored reduction in the use of plastic bags and in the recycling of plastic bags.

QUESTION: Minister, what was your response to the fact that Australia is second behind the US in being the [indistinct] with regard to landfill?

KEMP: Well, today is a really great moment in the light of the waste problem that we have in this country, because what we have seen today is the acceptance by the ministers of a plan designed to significantly reduce the role and place of plastic bag waste.

QUESTION: Surely you must think it's a [indistinct] disgrace [indistinct] could really do a lot better.

KEMP: Well we can do better and technology is going to allow us to move towards a position where there will be virtually no waste because pretty well everything that is currently waste can be used or recycled, but we're not quite at that point yet. But we are seeing the technology rapidly develop and I have no doubt the Australian community wants to see a very significant reduction in the waste that's being produced.

QUESTION: Is that a figure though that the Australian community should be ashamed of?

KEMP: Well it's a matter of the way in which we've behaved over the years. I think Australians are very devoted to improving the environment in this country. Australians want to see this country with a magnificent environment and waste is one of our significant problems. I think the public will be very pleased that ministers have taken the decisive action that they've taken today.

QUESTION: [indistinct] independent panel. Where will that be made up from or who will form it?

KEMP: Ah, we'll have to consider who would be the appropriate external body to constitute that panel, but it's clear that we need an independent group to do that and an independent group will be put in place.

QUESTION: Environmental groups, I suspect, will be disappointed by today's decision. They were hoping even for a compromise plan for the banning of the lightweight plastic bags. You're saying that that may happen further down the track, but why couldn't it be considered--

KEMP: Well I'm saying that ministers are not convinced that there's any single shot which is going to solve the plastic bag problem. They haven't been convinced that a levy is the answer because Australians will respond to a levy in a particular way and that may not deal at all with the litter problem. Simply banning bags in the absence of an environmentally sound alternative is again not going to solve the problem. If we're going to cut down forests in order to ban plastic bags that's not necessarily a proper solution either.

So when governments have looked very closely at this, they've come to the conclusion that the way to deal with this is through a multi phase approach and that is one that looks at reuse, it looks at recycling, it looks at public education to reduce the role of plastic bags in the litter streams. So that's what we've got today, we've got a multifaceted approach which is going to address the problem in a very satisfactory way.

QUESTION: Was there any consideration given to implementing a levy on a short term basis and see how that … what effect that has rather than just rely on public opinion surveys?

KEMP: Well we are going to be able to see the effects of levies, because I've seen news today that Bunnings is going to be introducing a voluntary levy and I've no doubt that there will be retailers who will introduce voluntary levies of one kind or another so the community will be in a position over coming months to make some assessment of how these levies are actually operating.

QUESTION: Is that a position, Bunnings, one that you'd support? Would you encourage--

KEMP: I very much welcome the approach of Bunnings. I think it's without pre-empting how that might finally work out, I think it is really excellent to see a major retailer taking this problem seriously.

REPORTERS: Thank you.

KEMP: Thank you very much. Thanks for waiting.

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