Australia’s top three supermarkets have vowed to “urgently” revive the failed soft plastics recycling program, but they still face a huge problem.
Coles, Woolworths and Aldi have announced they will resume soft plastic collection and recycling by the end of 2023 in a phased rollout that could last until 2025.
But the promise hinges on first dealing with a 12,000-tonne mountain of plastic stored in warehouses, previously unaware of consumers who thought waste was recycled.
The private company behind the REDcycle program is being liquidated after it emerged that the plastics consumers had diligently returned to grocery stores had been stored, not recycled.
REDcycle has denied being involved in a cover-up, saying it was holding onto waste while trying to overcome problems, including a lack of recycling capacity.
In their announcement on Wednesday, Coles, Woolworths and ALDI unveiled their plan to get recycling of soft plastics back on track, but cautioned it would be a slow, phased process.
A pilot scheme in a handful of stores is expected to be operating “from the end of 2023”, provided REDcycle’s existing stocks of soft plastic can be phased out sooner, the supermarket task force said.
The program would then be gradually rolled out across the country in 2024.
“While the task force is working to urgently launch in-store collections, it is severely constrained by Australia’s limited access to domestic soft plastic recycling,” a joint statement said.
“Currently, it would not be possible to recycle the volume of household soft plastics collected in a supermarket program using household infrastructure.
Accordingly, the working group has mapped out the projected gradual increase in Australia’s soft plastic recycling capacity over the next year, as new operators launch and existing processors expand.
“Starting in late 2023, the task force will meet the newly available processing capacity with a phased reintroduction of in-store collections so that the volume of incoming domestic soft plastics does not exceed the amount that can be recycled, as was the case with REDcycle.
“Restoring public confidence in recycling soft plastics is paramount, and the task force will reintroduce soft plastics collections when it can be sure they will be recycled properly.”
The big three retailers said the best way to speed up nationwide access to recycling soft plastics was through continued investment in recycling facilities in Australia.
Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the supermarket plan was a welcome step and the government was investing heavily in the nation’s recycling capabilities.
But she also said she was prepared to regulate “if the industry doesn’t fix this.”
Ms Plibersek said the government had set aside $250 million for new recycling facilities, with $60 million of that specifically for hard-to-recycle plastics like soft plastics.
It said 48 recycling plants were being built or upgraded and 11 had opened.
“We see we have a role, but I tell you what, so do the companies that are generating all this waste,” he said in a Twitter video.
Circular economy experts said Australia has been reluctant to introduce government-mandated and regulated schemes, despite experience abroad showing that’s the way to get quick results.
Veteran campaigner Jeff Angel leads the Boomerang Alliance of 55 of Australia’s leading community and environmental groups, and has questioned the decision to let industry solve the problem.
“I don’t think the community trusts supermarkets and the packaging industry to do well on their own,” Angel said.
“It is absolutely vital that the government regulates the sector to ensure large-scale collection systems for households; financing of producers and large retailers; and recycled content or less plastic or other alternative materials, in new packaging.”
The supermarket task force agreed Australia needed a long-term national soft plastic recycling strategy and said more waste could be diverted if systems were made more convenient and offered at the household level.
He was pointing to a curbside collection model, outlined in the National Plastics Recycling Scheme and being developed by the Australian Food and Grocery Council with funding from the federal government.
The model would involve food and grocery manufacturers paying a tax to support recycling of the soft plastics they create.
The Australian Packaging Covenant Organization has estimated that the REDcycle scheme collected less than 5 per cent of the soft plastic waste Australians generate.