Recycling alone cannot solve the plastics crisis

Recycling alone cannot solve the plastics crisis

Australia is a major consumer of plastic, with estimates suggesting that we use around 3.5 million tonnes of plastic each year. Soft plastics account for a significant proportion of this figure, with items such as plastic bags, retail packaging, and food packaging contributing to the problem.

For many years, consumers and businesses felt like they were able to reduce their impact by placing their soft plastics in REDcycle bins outside their closest Woolworths or Coles. Consumers believed that everything placed in these bins was going to be recycled and turned into other products, which in theory would mean less waste in landfill. 

However, while soft plastics recycling is a great idea in theory, it became abundantly clear that it was not the solution we thought it was. After the shock announcement that REDCycle had collapsed late last year, it brought the issue of our recycling crisis into sharp focus and left businesses and consumers deeply disappointed. Consumers were advised that any soft plastic must now be placed into the rubbish bin, although industry efforts are underway to revive the scheme incrementally over time.

In February, Woolworths and Coles announced they would take ownership of the disposal of the 12,000 tonnes of plastic collected by the failed program. But communication between the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and the supermarkets shows that the organisation was worried about the disposal of the soft plastics materials.

The EPA letter to the supermarkets stated, “The seriousness of the incident is indicated by the number of sites, the volume of stockpiled material, the long duration that some material has apparently been stored for, the absence of required development consent at most of the sites, the widespread non-compliance with appropriate fire safety guidelines and the breadth of environmental issues identified during the EPA’s inspections.”

However, the supermarkets are committed to finding a solution and The Soft Plastics Taskforce has created a Roadmap to Restart, explaining the steps needed to re-launch a viable soft plastic collection scheme. The Taskforce is made up of three main supermarkets: Coles, Woolworths and ALDI.

It has been given the responsibility to develop a short-term solution to re-implement consumer access to soft plastic drop-off bins. As the current plan outlines, an in-store collection pilot program is expected to start in key stores in late 2023. This is only if the current soft plastic stockpiles can be disposed of prior to that, and to ensure that happens these retailers have flagged the option of exporting the waste overseas to trusted recycling facilities overseas with the necessary transparency, traceability and government approvals. 

If the pilot is successful, it will be rolled out to more stores throughout 2024. 

The light that was shone on our recycling process revealed some of its flaws. Even when REDcycle was in operation, only 16 per cent of all plastics were actually being recycled, amounting to 84 per cent of these plastics going to landfill. According to Tanya Plibersek, Australia’s Minister for the Environment and Water, the Australian soft plastics recycling program had targets to raise recycling rates to 70 per cent by 2025, but this will now be significantly below 16 per cent for the time being. 

The problem with soft plastics recycling in Australia is extremely complex. They are difficult to recycle because they are notoriously considered low quality plastics, making them much harder to repurpose into new products. The process of recycling soft plastics also reduces their quality further, meaning that they are unlikely to be recycled more than once and ultimately end up in landfill. 

Another issue is that recycling soft plastics is more expensive than disposing of them in landfill. This is partly due to the fact that soft plastics must be collected, transported, sorted, and processed separately from other materials, which is costly and time-intensive.

There is also a lack of infrastructure to support soft plastics recycling in Australia, although the Federal Government is seeking to improve this state of affairs through its $250 million Recycling Modernisation Fund which has already committed to 48 additional plastic recycling facilities of which 11 have been delivered.

This does not immediately resolve other problems in the collection chain. While many households have access to recycling bins, collectors typically only accept hard plastics, paper, and other materials that are easier to recycle. Soft plastics, on the other hand, require specialised recycling programs that are not widely available.

What makes matters worse is that there are now companies greenwashing Australian consumers and businesses by supplying packaging labelled as being made from recycled plastics and/or being 100 per cent recyclable. Regardless of whether a material is labeled "recycled plastic”, it still acts as single-use plastic and should be avoided whenever possible due to insufficient recycling rates, high costs, and low quality of soft plastics themselves. Virgin plastic and recycled plastic alike ultimately worsen our landfill problem. 

As consumers and businesses, we can address this problem by choosing alternatives to soft plastics.  Home compostable materials and paper-based materials are far more beneficial to the planet, and form part of the circular economy. These materials require less processing, less transport and if disposed of correctly can break down with minimal waste. 

While initiatives underway are a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to address the broader challenges facing the recycling industry in Australia. The burden should not be placed on the supermarkets alone. There must be government support for the development of recycling infrastructure and the implementation of policies that incentivise companies to reduce their waste and penalisation of companies that continue to exacerbate the problem.

In addition, it would be beneficial for the government to create and support educational and awareness campaigns to teach consumers and businesses about materials, wastage, recycling/composting programs and disposal methods. 

Individual actions can also make a difference. Australians can reduce their soft plastic waste by choosing reusable alternatives, compostable or paper-based products, and speaking to their local councils to implement collection services such as RecycleSmart.

While the collapse of REDcycle is certainly a setback for plastic recycling in Australia, it is also an opportunity for the country to rethink its approach to waste and find new ways to create a more sustainable future.

Get our daily business news

Sign up to our free email news updates.

Finexia’s Childcare Income Fund secures ‘very strong’ rating from Foresight Analytics & Ratings
Partner Content
Private credit specialist Finexia Financial Group (ASX: FNX) has secured a “very...

Related Stories

If we perfect cultivated meat, we could hedge against food shortages as climate chaos intensifies

If we perfect cultivated meat, we could hedge against food shortages as climate chaos intensifies

It didn’t get much attention when US President Joe Biden laun...

SVB: How interest rates helped trigger its collapse and what central bankers should do next

SVB: How interest rates helped trigger its collapse and what central bankers should do next

A former prime minister of Britain, Harold Wilson, is famous for re...

As regulators target greenwashing, SMEs must take notice

As regulators target greenwashing, SMEs must take notice

Regulators are turning up the pressure against greenwashing in case...

Australia’s biggest cold trucking firm collapses, but reports of a supply disaster are overheated

Australia’s biggest cold trucking firm collapses, but reports of a supply disaster are overheated

If there’s any lesson from the past three years of supermarke...