Australia’s largest plastic bag recycling program has collapsed amid revelations hundreds of millions of bags and other soft plastic items dropped off by customers at Coles and Woolworths are being secretly stockpiled in warehouses and not recycled.
Instead of being taken to companies that use the plastic to make other items, REDcycle has been transporting the plastic to warehouses for long-term storage in what some experts consider a potential environmental and fire safety risk.
The Melbourne-based company, which claims to collect up to 5 million plastic items a day from public drop-off points at nearly 2000 supermarkets across the country, did not publicly announce the suspension of the recycling component of its program, and has for months continued collecting large volumes of soft plastics including shopping bags, pet food bags, ice cream wrappers, bubble wrap and frozen food packaging.
The plastics collected are usually sent to other companies, where they are used as ingredients in concrete, asphalt, street furniture, bollards and shopping trolleys.
On Tuesday evening, after questions from this masthead, REDcycle announced it would suspend its collection program from Wednesday due to “untenable pressure” on its business model.
Woolworths apologised to customers on Tuesday. Coles declined to comment about when it became aware REDcycle was collecting plastic from its supermarkets that were not being recycled.
A spokeswoman for REDcycle said “several unforeseen challenges, exacerbated by the pandemic” meant that three companies that normally accepted the plastic for recycling were no longer doing so.
The processing problems are expected to continue until mid-2023, which could mean more than 1 billion plastic items – or thousands of tonnes – are stockpiled in warehouses. REDcycle would not reveal how much plastic is currently stockpiled in its facilities.
“REDcycle has had to take the unwanted but necessary step of holding stock in warehouse storage facilities temporarily, as this material will not be able to be processed for at least six months,” the spokeswoman said.
She said the company did not intend to send the stockpile of soft plastics to landfill and committed to processing it at a later date. The material was being stored by the company at “great personal expense”, she said.
The program’s collapse is the latest in a series of disasters to hit Australia’s nascent plastic recycling industry, which has been plagued for years with issues of stockpiling, dumping, toxic fires, lax regulation, high costs and the closure of international markets that made it economically challenging.
Lucinda Moje-O’Brien, a student in the inner Melbourne suburb of Footscray, said she felt “betrayed” after learning the soft plastics she had donated were not ending up where promised.
“As a consumer, I’m taking the time to separate my waste and they’re not holding up their end of the deal,” she said. “If [REDcycle is] not doing [its] job, then Coles and Woolworths need to find someone who will.”
The high-profile recycling program ran into trouble almost five months ago, in June, after a fire at the processing facility of REDcycle’s largest recycling partner, Close the Loop, which converts soft plastics into asphalt additives and binding agents.
Close the Loop chief executive Joe Foster said the company’s processing equipment would be back online in mid-2023.
“We got to the stage where supply was less than demand. [Before the fire] demand was just going crazy. We are committed to working with REDcycle, we’re just in the rebuilding phase,” he said.
REDcycle had already lost Plastic Forests, another small-scale recycling partner that made garden planting kits, in February 2021. Last week, outdoor furniture and decking-maker Replas stopped accepting plastics because it had an oversupply and was planning to phase out processing the material.
From 2017 to 2020, large-scale stockpiles of plastic supposedly destined for recycling sparked massive, highly toxic fires or were left abandoned when recycling businesses collapsed. Those collapses meant hundreds of thousands of tonnes of material had to be destroyed or dumped in landfills, often at taxpayers’ expense.
Jeff Angel, the director of sustainability organisations the Boomerang Alliance and Total Environment Centre, told this masthead that the problems REDcycle had encountered were a clear indication that the current limited market for recycling soft plastics was “built on shaky ground”.
“There’s always a concern that bales and bales of plastic that are one day destined for recycling are at risk of catching fire or ending up in landfill,” he said.
Woolworths said it was “only recently informed” by REDcycle about its problems.
“REDcycle has advised that it will no longer be able to collect the soft plastic returned by customers from our stores, effective immediately,” a Woolworths spokesperson said. “We are disappointed by this situation. We sincerely apologise to our customers, and we’re working to return access to soft plastic recycling as soon as possible.”
A Coles spokesperson said: “Coles was only recently made aware that soft plastics collections in store would be paused by REDcycle.”
Keep Australia Beautiful program manager Benedict Walta said REDcycle’s actions were frustrating to those who were trying to encourage sustainability.
“If there’s a collection point … then I’m certainly inclined to use them,” he said. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be leaving it with the supermarket at all.”
Sustainability Victoria, which has provided past funding to REDcycle, declined to comment.
REDcycle reports it has collected more than 5.4 billion pieces of plastic that “will never end up in landfill, on our beaches or in our waterways” since the program began in 2011. REDcycle collects approximately 7000 tonnes of soft plastics a year.
Extracted from The Sydney Morning Herald