Apples for sale in plastic packaging.

Why the collapse of flexible plastics recycler REDcycle could be a good thing for the environment

Key points
  • Sustainability advocates say REDcycle’s suspension of operations should be a wake-up call to reduce reliance on soft plastics.
  • Only a small proportion of the flexible plastics used in Australia have been recycled through the scheme.
  • The founder of Plastic Free July says the use and regulation of plastic production is necessary.
The woman behind a global movement asking people to get rid of plastic for a month is among those who say pausing the REDcycle program has the potential to have a positive impact.
amid concerns the items were not being recycled.
REDcycle said the public would no longer be able to deposit soft plastics in collection bins at Coles or Woolworths supermarkets.
The processing facilities it used had temporarily stopped processing soft plastics as the organization faced a huge increase in the volume of plastic it received.

Sustainability advocates say this should be a wake-up call for more meaningful action to tackle plastic waste in Australia.

REDcycle gave supermarkets a ‘free pass’, it is claimed

Lindsay Miles, a waste educator, told SBS News that REDcycle had been a “free pass” for supermarkets that acted as collection points for the recycler.

A trolley full of groceries in a supermarket aisle.

Sustainability advocates say consumers need better options when it comes to packaging. Source: Getty / Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd

“They used it to say, ‘look, we’re doing something,'” she said.

In reality, REDcycle has put the responsibility on the customers and has recycled a small part of the country’s plastic waste.
REDcycle said it has recycled 5.4 million pieces of soft plastic since its start in 2011. Australians use around 70 billion pieces of soft plastic each year.

“Rather than looking at their packaging and their systems, and trying to reduce their use of plastic or change the way they do it, they shift the burden onto us and make it our problem to manage,” Ms Miles said.

The different waste management options according to what is best for the planet

The waste hierarchy shows the different waste management options sorted by those that are best for the planet.

Reducing waste by avoiding using something and reusing things comes before recycling in what is called the waste hierarchy.

Ms Miles said it needed to be easier for people to reduce their reliance on soft plastics.
“Not everyone has access to bulk stores and reuse systems and options to avoid plastic – that needs to change,” she said.

“As a society, we don’t buy single-use plastic because we love it, we buy it because everything is smothered in it,” she wrote in a blog post.

Call launched to regulate plastic production

Plastic Free July founder Rebecca Prince-Ruiz said it’s cheaper for companies to create new plastics and there are no regulations to stop them.

A woman standing in front of a restaurant menu board outdoors

Founder of Plastic Free July and Executive Director of the Plastic Free Foundation, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz. Source: Provided / Tashi Room

“Plastic producers and manufacturers and brand owners can use virgin [newly produced] plastics because they are cheaper and easier than using recycled content,” she said.

“We need legislation that requires brand owners to use recycled content and industry to be responsible for packaging throughout the life of that item, just like we do in container deposit systems.”

Ms Prince-Ruiz said REDcycle’s pause has created an opportunity for supermarkets to put pressure on brands.
“Switching to reuse and refill programs for households and offering consumers products packaged in paper and other materials that are easy to recycle will go a long way to reducing plastic waste,” she said.

“Selling cleaning products as concentrates where water is added at home is another good way to reduce the overall amount of packaging,” she said.

What is the future of flexible plastics?

REDcycle said it was committed to getting the program back up and running and Ms Prince-Ruiz said it was a worthwhile program, but not on its own.
“REDcycle is a great program, but it needs to be supported by business and not be voluntary,” she said.
Woolworths and Coles said they were working with industry partners to support the future of soft plastic recycling.
Australia’s national packaging targets, backed by government and industry, aim for 70% of plastic packaging to be recycled or composted by 2025.

During this same period, the goal is for 100% of packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable and for packaging to consist of an average of 50% recycled content.

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