Australia’s largest soft-plastics recycling programme has disintegrated like a single-use bag floating in the ocean.
Reports have surfaced that hundreds of millions of plastic bags and other soft plastic items deposited at REDcycle bins in Coles and Woolworths supermarkets, under the impression that they would be recycled, are actually just sitting in warehouses.
Both supermarkets have put the programme on indefinite pause following the revelations revealed by The Age and it’s fair to say that consumers are fuming.
“I‘m furious. You bloody liars,” said one poster on Twitter.
“I’ve been using recycle for years and now feel like a massive chump,” another added.
REDcycle has been around since 2011 and, according to them, has collected 5.4 billion pieces of plastic in that time. Customers of Woolworths and Coles, who had partnerships with the company, have been diligently dropping off their separated soft-plastic recycling in the REDcycle bins so they can be disposed of properly.
The programmes normally sends plastic to manufacturers for use in new products, however, for the past five months at least, manufacturers have been cutting back on their orders, meaning REDcycle has had to store the waste themselves.
“REDcycle has had to take the unwanted but necessary step of holding stock in warehouse storage facilities temporarily, as this material will not be able to be processed for at least six months,” a spokeswoman told The Sydney Morning Herald.
The company is still planning to process the stored waste when possible and says that they won’t be sending it to landfill. They also claim the storage of soft plastics comes at “great personal expense” to them.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has said on Twitter that the news is “really concerning”.
“Australians want to do their bit and recycle where they can,” she said.
“Big companies like Coles and Woolworths generate a lot of this material, it shouldn’t be beyond them to come up with a viable solution. We’re happy to work with them to achieve this”.
Plibersek also noted that the Federal Government has set aside $60 million to increase soft plastic recycling capacity in Australia, while a further $1 million has been given to the Australian Food and Grocery Council to develop more sustainable packaging options.
The news highlights the broader issue of recycling in this country. To date, no state government authority will take soft plastics for recycling. Only Victoria has plans to introduce the option in kerbside recycling while a few local councils around the country are also trialling it.
REDcycle has said that it simply cannot cope with the volume of plastic they are attempting to recycle, and have called on governments to assist them.
“We are experiencing a huge challenge now because, thanks to the pandemic and everyone being at home and generating a lot of plastic packaging, we have seen increases of over 350 per cent in our network,” REDcycle CEO Liz Kasell told the Today programme.
A Woolworths’ spokesperson told The Latch that they were unaware of the issues with REDcycle until the investigation and that the service has now closed at their stores.
“We are disappointed by this situation. We sincerely apologise to our customers and we’re working to return access to soft plastic recycling as soon as possible,” they said.
“We are currently working through a range of options with the Australian Food and Grocery Council, the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, and the recycling industry to support the future of soft plastic recycling.”
A Coles’ spokesperson also told The Latch that “industry-wide challenges with soft plastic recycling” have forced the programme to shut for the time being.
“Sustainability is as important to Coles as it is to our customers and partners,” they said.
“We are committed to our Together to Zero waste ambition and are working with government, industry and sustainability partners to find a long-term solution for soft plastics recycling in Australia.”
While it’s hugely frustrating for Aussies who are clearly going out of their way to do the right thing, REDcycle is the only consumer-facing soft plastic recycling option for the vast majority of households.
It seems utterly bizarre, in this day and age, that government authorities have yet to figure out a solution to this serious and immediate problem.