Aussie Supermarkets Export Plastics for Recycling After REDcycle Collapse

Australia’s major supermarket chains have begun shipping samples of soft plastics overseas to be recycled, as they grapple with the aftermath of the collapsed REDcycle scheme, which resulted in thousands of tonnes of stockpiled plastics. Coles and Woolworths assumed responsibility for the plastic stockpiles in February, after REDcycle went into liquidation and left creditors, including storage fees for warehouses across multiple Australian states, owed about $5 million.

The situation escalated when Victoria’s environmental watchdog accused REDcycle in December of secretly hoarding 3,000 tonnes of soft plastics across nine sites. Subsequently, the supermarkets uncovered 11,000 tonnes of plastics over 44 sites, including those identified by REDcycle and regulators, as well as through their own investigations.

However, this crisis has left most Australians without a viable method to recycle the 70 billion pieces of soft plastics consumed annually, while the supermarkets work on a solution to manage the stockpiles and initiate a new soft plastics collection program. To address the issue, the supermarkets have consolidated the stockpiles to 18 sites at a cost of approximately $3 million.

A spokesperson for Coles and Woolworths stated that around 4 percent of the plastics had degraded to the point where recycling was no longer feasible. They added that they are exploring various options to recycle the stockpile, including partnerships with Australian processors who are developing new soft-plastic recycling facilities. However, a major challenge arises because there is insufficient recycling capacity in Australia to handle the 11,000 tonnes of soft plastics, let alone replace the REDcycle scheme.

To deal with the scale of the problem, the supermarkets have started sending plastic samples to Germany and a company in Texas, USA, to experiment with advanced chemical recycling. This process would enable the plastic to be transformed into food packaging or medical equipment, but it is not yet widely operational in Australia.

In the past, Australia used to export much of its waste, including to China, but due to China’s restrictions on waste imports in 2018, the country has taken measures to ban waste exports gradually. As a result, the supermarkets would require government approvals to send the stockpiles overseas.

Jeff Angel, the director of the environment group Boomerang Alliance, expressed concern about sending soft plastics overseas, fearing that they may not be subject to the same regulations as in Australia, possibly leading to incineration, recycling, or landfill.

Angel urged the supermarkets and the government to provide more details about their plan for dealing with soft plastics by the end of 2023. He emphasized the need for governments and businesses to commit to using recycled content to create a stronger market for such products and to reduce plastic usage in packaging.

The soft plastics taskforce, which involves the supermarkets, aims to introduce a new soft plastics collection scheme in some stores by the end of 2023. The supermarkets plan to seek contributions from other retailers and brands to fund this program, which they intend to operate as a not-for-profit initiative with independent governance.

Coles and Woolworths see this as an opportunity to rethink the future of soft-plastic recycling in Australia, including the possibility of local government kerbside collection to make recycling more convenient for consumers.

While some small-scale solutions exist, such as the City of Kingston’s soft plastics collection points in Melbourne, the overall challenge remains significant. The issue calls for collective efforts to find sustainable solutions to handle and recycle soft plastics effectively for the benefit of the environment and future generations.

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