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Q+A: Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage

Q+A: Conservation and Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage interviewed by Corin Dann

Conservation and Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage signals a ban on single use plastic bags is imminent.

‘We are very close to making some announcements on single-use plastic bags and about phasing them out, so there will be a consultation document coming out in the near future.’

Minister Sage also told TVNZ 1’s Q+A programme that officials are investigating a hike in the $10 per tonne waste disposal levy charged by the government to dump waste at landfills and whether it should be expanded to cover more landfills.

‘The $140 a tonne is something that local government New Zealand and councils have called for. I haven’t made any statements on what level the levy should be set at. There’s policy work being done, and I do have to consult with colleagues on that, but certainly we have over 340 landfills in New Zealand, and the levy only applies to 10% of those, so there’s a lot of stuff going to a lot of landfills where the levy doesn’t apply.’

The Minister expects to receive advice on changes to the levy in the next few months.

When asked about implementing the ‘no new mines on conservation land’ policy the Minister told Corin Dann the decision will go to Cabinet.

‘I think we will continue to see mining on the Coast because a lot of the mining that happens in New Zealand is actually on private land or some on Maori land on the West Coast. Mining on the West Coast has a strong future.’

Q + A
Episode 19
Interviewed by Corin Dann

CORIN We start today with the Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, who joins me from Christchurch. Plenty going on in the world of conservation. Good morning to you.

EUGENIE Mōrena, Corin.

CORIN Mōrena, indeed. Could we start with the issue of plastic bags, which has been raging for some time in New Zealand. Are you going to ban plastic bags? First, single-use plastic bags.

EUGENIE We are very close to making some announcements on single-use plastic bags and about phasing them out, so there will be a consultation document coming out in the near future.

CORIN Why is it taking so long?

EUGENIE Because unlike Trump’s America, you don’t issue executive orders. We are in a democracy. You do the policy work. You consult other agencies. You consult colleagues so that you get sound policy.

CORIN Who’s objecting? Because looking around, and it seems we’ve got supermarkets, we’ve got hardware stores – everyone seems to be buying in. This is one of those issues where it’s the public that are pushing the politicians, it seems. Who’s objecting?

EUGENIE Well, the supermarkets, and it’s really great, the initiatives they have taken to phase out plastic bags this year or the middle of next. And so the government has responded to that. It’s one of the first things I did as associate environment minister to ask the ministry to look at the issues around single-use plastic bags, but it just does take time to do the research in terms of what’s worked best internationally in terms of phasing them out, what are the options and to come up with some recommendations to put out to the public.

CORIN Are you getting pushback from some industries?

EUGENIE No, but it’s what is the best way of doing that. Is it—and what’s the timeframe? So there will be a consultation document coming out shortly.

CORIN What about the idea of a tax or a levy? Is that still in the mix or have you knocked that one out?

EUGENIE That was one of the options that was looked at, and I’m not going to say—Wait until you get the consultation document. But it’s actually looking at all those options, what worked overseas, what didn’t work so well, so what are we best to do in New Zealand to work towards phase out.

CORIN I think from previous comments, it looks pretty clear your personal preference is to get rid of the bags?

EUGENIE Yes, to get rid of, yeah. And we’ve got really good legislation, the Waste Minimisation Act, which has been in place since 2008. It was a Green member’s bill, Nandor Tanczos. Last Labour government picked it up, and there’s the opportunity to potentially use regulations under that act.

CORIN Well, let’s talk about that waste issue, because I mentioned in the opener about the issue of all the recycling that’s piling up around the country, which is alarming. How do we resolve that? Is the only way to resolve it getting China to take our rubbish?

EUGENIE No, we’ve got to turn our rubbish record on waste around, and what China’s initiative has shown is that it’s no longer prepared to accept the world’s waste. That is causing issues around stockpiles, not just in New Zealand but overseas. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a great opportunity, because I think businesses are recognising now that we’ve got to work back up the supply chain; we’ve got to think about what we design and produce, think about the packaging that’s around it and reduce waste from the outset.

CORIN Okay, those are, sort of, medium- to long-term goals. In the short-term, will you have to force Auckland, which I understand doesn’t do the same level of recycling as other parts of the country. Will you force Auckland to divvy up its plastics so that it can be properly recycled?

EUGENIE Well, we’ve set up our task force within MFE to look at the urgent solutions. They’re consulting with an independent reference group involving councils and the sector. We’re looking at what Australia’s doing, cos they’re in a similar situation, but it’s actually—If we were just using recycled PET plastics, there’s a company in Lower Hutt, Flight Plastics, which could reuse all of the PET plastics, that’s the water bottle type, drink bottle type plastics. Some of those now are being remanufactured. Old plastic bottles turned into trays for supermarkets, so those sorts of initiatives are gaining ground, and we’ll have more of those initiatives.

CORIN No, I get that, but are you going to make the tough calls, for example, which could put an imposition on some Auckland homeowners, ratepayers, whatever, where they have to make a bigger effort to recycle?

EUGENIE Well, one way of doing that is the waste levy only applies to 10% of landfills. If we expand the number of landfills, then that increases the revenue from the levy. Half of that revenue goes to councils to assist their waste minimisation initiatives, and I want to see clearer criteria so that councils are doing more, but councils are also leading here. They’ve got a waste manifesto. They are calling for more action, so I think we’ve got an enormous opportunity to do much better on waste.

CORIN So will Aucklanders have to change their recycling habits or not?

EUGENIE So, I think you’ve got an issue in Auckland because you’ve got the glass mixed up with the plastics, which makes it much harder for the recycling companies. Whereas in places like Hastings and Napier, they separate at curb side, so Auckland’s got some big issues because of the volumes. The council is heavily engaged with that, as is the government. We are working together. There will be solutions.

CORIN All right, what about this levy. It’s $10 a tonne for Kiwis at the moment, isn’t it? But I think you’ve signalled that it could go a lot higher than that, so that is an increase in the tax on waste, is it not?

EUGENIE Well, the levy is an instrument under the law at the moment. Councils have signalled that they would like it to go higher. It only applies to 10% of landfills, which take about 30% of the volume.

CORIN So you’re going to increase that across the country?

EUGENIE We need to expand the landfills that applies to, because one of the big issues in waste is construction waste, and so a lot of material going to landfill, and that’s often going to landfills that aren’t subject to the levy, so it’s definitely expanding the landfills that the levy applies to.

CORIN And the levy’s going to go up?

EUGENIE That’s what officials are looking at at the moment, and I’m expecting advice on that within the next few months.

CORIN So, just to be clear here, New Zealanders will in future need to pay more to dump—to take their trailer down to the dump and offload their rubbish from the spring clean? They will have to pay more?

EUGENIE Well, there’s already often a charge when you take your trailer to the landfill. People often take out the things that can be recycled at eco-stores and recovery centres. Where it will hit is the recycling businesses, but what this does is send a signal that we can no longer just make, use stuff and then throw it away. There is no way.

CORIN Sure, I think people agree with you there, but what I’m trying to get at is – so if it’s $10 a tonne at the moment, is the levy that Kiwis pay on going to the dump effectively, albeit at a small number of landfills, but that’s going to expand. I think I’ve seen you quoted somewhere that officials were looking at it going to $140.

EUGENIE That’s what—sorry.

CORIN I just want to know, can you give me a sense of what the extra costs would be for the trailer load of dumped stuff that the average Kiwi might be taking to the dump. How much is the tax going to increase?

EUGENIE The work on that is being done. The $140 a tonne is something that local government New Zealand and councils have called for. I haven’t made any statements on what level the levy should be set at. There’s policy work being done, and I do have to consult with colleagues on that, but certainly we have over 340 landfills in New Zealand, and the levy only applies to 10% of those, so there’s a lot of stuff going to a lot of landfills where the levy doesn’t apply.

CORIN But it’s not unreasonable to start preparing New Zealanders for the idea that they need to start paying more or get better at recycling.

EUGENIE Yep, and I guess the benefit of the levy is that half the revenue generated goes to council to help them with waste minimisation. The other half goes into the waste minimisation fund. That’s about $13 million a year that goes into grants to progressive businesses to enable them to develop some solutions to waste, and we’re seeing a huge amount of really innovative research. There’s a company in Auckland, Mint Innovation. It’s had a grant recently . It’s mining e-waste for heavy metals like gold, silver and palladium instead of mining conservation land.

CORIN On that note of mining on conservation land, when is the decision going to come about – you’ve signalled you want to stop mining on conservation land. Is that a decision you’re going to follow through on and when?

EUGENIE So, the decision that was announced in the speech from the throne was no new mines on conservation land. It doesn’t affect existing mines. There’s a consultation document that will come out in late September for about two months’ consultation. I was on the Coast last week looking at coal mine, gold mine there. There are different sorts of mines. The big hard rock gold mines, those have different sorts of impacts from alluvial mining, so those are all the sorts of issues we’re looking at and developing the consultation document.

CORIN Who will make that decision? Will you be the one that makes that decision?

EUGENIE I expect that will go to cabinet.

CORIN It will go to cabinet?


CORIN Are you prepared for a fight there, because you’ll be aware that Shane Jones has said, even in the last two or three days, that emphasised that this is going to be a decision by the entirety of the government. He wants to continue to see mining on the West Coast. Are you worried that New Zealand First will block you?

EUGENIE I think we will continue to see mining on the Coast because a lot of the mining that happens in New Zealand is actually on private land or some on Maori land on the West Coast. Mining on the West Coast has a strong future. There are about 100—just over 100 access agreements on conservation land on the West Coast. Only about 55 of those are active, but there are different sorts of mining. You’ve got hard rock gold mining that leaves a huge hole in the ground, like the Reefton Globe-Progress mine. That creates big tailings lakes. There are issues from contaminant from those if the tailings dam breaches. And then there’s alluvial mining, which is where you’re mining more of the gravels.

CORIN But you must be aware that there’s thousands protesting on the West Coast today about economic development essentially, and we saw a piece from Whena Owen last week on Q+A in which it’s clear the West Coast feels that if you take away their ability to have future mines on conservation land, and we’re talking the lower-grade conservation land, aren’t we? We’re not talking schedule-four here, the top stuff, that you are denying them their economic sovereignty.

EUGENIE Well, I think tourism has been increasing significantly on the West Coast, and some of the initiatives that Minister Jones announced with Damien O’Connor on Friday – greater investment through the Provincial Growth Fund in continuing to grow jobs in tourism. It’s responsible for 2000 jobs on the Coast now, so we want to ensure that the West Coast thrives, and the conversations I’ve been having with miners on the Coast last week, with leaders on the Coast, they recognise the important of a diverse economic base on the Coast.

CORIN So this goes to cabinet, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re not going to be there to argue the case in cabinet?

EUGENIE Papers go up to cabinet committees. The Green Party is well-represented on those cabinet committees, and I have been to cabinet meetings to speak to a specific item when that goes before the cabinet.

CORIN But I’m just getting back to the idea that, you know, I mean, Shane Jones has got a competing interest, hasn’t he. He’s got an economic development portfolio. He’s trying to push his case, and he’s making it quite clear with his rhetoric that this is a decision for the entire government and all of the rest of it. You’ve got a battle on your hands here, don’t you?

EUGENIE Well, I think what Mr Jones was talking about was stewardship land, and there is a mistaken understanding among some that the review of stewardship land will lead to large areas of conservation land going out of the conservation estate. Stewardship land is conservation land. It has to be managed to protect its natural and historic resources. It’s a third of the conservation estate, 2 million hectares nationally. A million of those are on the Coast. It’s high-value land.

CORIN So you can’t mine on that?

EUGENIE No, that—Well, that’s what the policy’s looking at in terms of no new mines. Existing mines will continue. Applications to mine are subject to an access agreement which ministers sign off on – myself and the Minister of Energy. It’s what is the policy around that, what are the different types of mining, what are their impacts and how should they be managed on conservation land?

CORIN Looking at the Greens over the last year, nine months or so in Government, have you been outspoken enough? I mean, you’ve taken a few hits when you think of the Maui dolphin decision around allowing some exploration, testing sort of stuff in that sanctuary. You had to sign off on the water-bottling. Green members were unhappy, very unhappy about both those decisions. Could you not have come out and fought the case harder against them?

EUGENIE Well, we have the rule of law in New Zealand, and the legislation with the water-bottling decision was very clear that if there were substantial and identifiable benefits, that decision would be yes.

CORIN Sure, but that’s politics, isn’t it? You’ve got rhetoric. You can use those. I mean, look at Shane Jones. That’s exactly what he does. Couldn’t the Greens come out and say—Let’s take the Maui dolphin. You knew before that became public that DOC was not happy about that. That was DOC’s advice. Could you not have come out and made your case in the court of public opinion and tried it on?

EUGENIE So the Department was indicating that if seabed mining would occur, there would be substantial concerns. This was a decision by MBIE – the petroleum and minerals section of MBIE. It didn’t come anywhere near my desk to make that decision, and DOC was not formally consulted because it was a decision under the Crown Minerals Act.

CORIN But even DOC acknowledged that public opinion perhaps didn’t know about this and that it might be something the public didn’t like. Couldn’t you have used the political devices at your disposal to put that into the public arena and have the debate?

EUGENIE I had already made very clear to Minister Woods, which would have gone to MBIE, the significance of Maui dolphin and their habitat. There is a whole lot of work being done now reviewing the threat management plan for Maui and Hector’s dolphins. There was a big series of workshops last week. We are looking at strengthening the protection for Maui and Hector’s dolphins through the threat management plan and we’ve also got officials looking at the Marine Mammals Act. Nine years neglect on the environment, Corin, can’t be fixed in nine months.

CORIN So that’s the one thing you can do, though, isn’t it? Just before we go, you can change the law, can’t you?

EUGENIE And we are looking at the Marine Mammals Act, yes.

CORIN Eugenie Sage, thank you very much for your time on Q+A.

EUGENIE Thank you, Corin.

CORIN We appreciate it.

Please find the full transcript attached and you can watch the interview here.

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1.
Repeated Sunday evening at around 11:35pm. Streamed live at www.tvnz.co.nz
Thanks to the support from NZ On Air.
Q+A is also on Facebook + Twitter + YouTube

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