Two hands holding a plastic shopping bag full of soft plastic packaging.

REDcycle’s collapse is a serious problem, but recycling plastic is like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound

This week, the federal government signed on to an international agreement to recycle or reuse 100% of plastic waste by 2040, ending plastic pollution. But major obstacles stand in the way.

The most recent is the collapse of Australia’s largest soft plastic recycling scheme, REDcycle. The program was suspended after it was revealed that soft plastic items collected from Woolworths and Coles had been stored for months in warehouses and not recycled.

The abrupt termination of the soft plastics recycling program has left many consumers deeply disappointed, and the feeling of betrayal is understandable. Recycling, with its familiar “hunting the arrows” symbol, has been touted by the plastics industry as the answer to the problem of single-use plastics for years.

But recycling is not a silver bullet. Most single-use plastics produced globally since the 1970s have ended up in landfills and the natural environment. Plastics can also be found in the foods we eat and at the bottom of the deepest oceans.

The recent collapse of the flexible plastics recycling system is further proof that plastic recycling is a broken system. Australia cannot meet its new target if the focus is solely on collection, recycling and disposal. Systemic change is urgently needed.

Recycling is a market

Australia has joined the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, a group of more than 30 countries co-led by Norway and Rwanda, and also including the UK, Canada and France.

It aims to provide a global treaty banning plastic pollution by establishing global rules and obligations for the full life cycle of plastic. This includes setting standards to reduce plastic production, consumption and waste. It would also enable a circular economy, where plastic is reduced, reused or recycled.

A soft plastic recycling bin at Woolworths
The demise of REDcycle deeply disappointed many consumers.(ABC News: Simon Winter)

The idea behind recycling is simple. By transforming items into new products, we can conserve natural resources and reduce pollution.

Unfortunately, the recycling process is much more complex and embedded in the economic system. Recycling is a commodity market. Who buys what is usually determined by the quality of the plastic.

Sitting in the middle of the chase arrow symbol is a number. If it’s a one or two, it’s high value and will most likely be sold on the commodity market and recycled. Numbers three through seven indicate mixed plastics, such as soft plastics, which are considered low value.

Unfortunately, it often costs more to recycle most plastics than to simply throw them away. Until 2018, low value plastics were exported to China. Dependence on the global waste trade for decades has prevented many countries, including Australia, from developing advanced national recycling infrastructures.

What are the biggest problems?

One of the biggest problems with recycling plastics is the wide variety of plastics that end up in the waste stream – sheets, foams, bags, many varieties of soft plastics, and different additives that further alter the properties of the plastic.

Most plastics can only be recycled in a pure, consistent form, and only a limited number of times. In addition, municipal plastic waste streams are very difficult to sort.

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