2022 Soft plastics recycling program falls over

REDcycle soft plastics recycling bins in Coles supermarket

We’ve been putting our bottles, cans, paper and rigid plastic containers in the recycling bin for decades, but soft plastics recycling has long been a problem. Then, in 2018, the major supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, put the REDcycle bins in their stores, encouraging us to bring back our bread bags, biscuit packets, lolly bags and frozen food bags. These were collected by the REDcycle people and onsold to companies who used the waste to make new products. It was a continuation of a program dating back to 2011, when REDcycle was founded by suburban mum Elizabeth Kasell.

The upside was that we all felt so much better about buying lots of products encased in plastic. The downside was that it did nothing to reduce the amount of plastic packaging being produced and disposed of. (According to Clean Up Australia, Australians are the world leaders in producing plastics waste – a total of 60kg per person per year, as compared to just 4kg in India). So when, in 2022, the whole scheme fell over, we ended up with a mountain of plastic waste that no one knew what to do with.

Part of the problem was China. Until 2018, China had been a dumping ground for the world’s recycling waste, taking in more than 30 million tonnes of the stuff every year. Then they called a halt to importing foreign rubbish. As a result, REDcycle had to find local buyers for its soft plastics recycling waste. The COVID19 pandemic didn’t help either, depressing the market for end products. And one of REDcycle’s major customers Close the Loop — which repurposed soft plastic into building materials —  paused operations after a fire at their processing facility.

In November 2022, REDcycle was forced to admit that it had simply been stockpiling collected plastics in dozens of locations across the country. The supermarkets were blindsided by the discovery and were forced to suspend the in-store soft plastics recycling scheme. The bins disappeared from the stores and the supermarkets subsequently took responsibility for the disposal of the stockpiles (most likely in landfill).

REDcycle was liquidated in March 2023 but Coles, Woolworths and Aldi have formed a Soft Plastics Taskforce in the hope of developing a new program. As of mid-2023, we’re still waiting.

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