The collapse of the RedCycle scheme in November 2022 has taken many of us by surprise and left a considerate number of Australians angry and lost on what to do with their bags of soft plastics they dutifully collected and sorted at home. We are pretty sure all of us have been asking the same question: What do I do with soft plastic now?
Soft Plastic in Australia
Soft plastics, such as plastic bags, packaging material, and single-use plastic utensils, have become a significant environmental issue in Australia. According to the Australian Government's National Waste Report, soft plastics make up a significant portion of the country's waste stream, with over 130,000 metric tons of soft plastics being generated each year.
One of the main reasons for the high volume of soft plastic waste in Australia is the widespread use of single-use plastics. These types of plastics, which are designed to be used once and then discarded, are prevalent in many aspects of daily life, including food packaging, shopping bags, and disposable cutlery.
The impact of this waste on the environment is significant. Soft plastics often end up in landfills, where they can take hundreds of years to break down. They can also end up in the oceans, where they can have harmful effects on marine life.
If you want to read more about Soft Plastic, head to our Soft Plastic Enigma: Part I.
To address this issue, the Australian Government has implemented a number of measures to reduce the use of single-use plastics. These include banning single-use plastic bags in certain states and territories, implementing a national container deposit scheme, and introducing guidelines for the use of biodegradable and compostable plastics.
There are also a number of initiatives being undertaken by industry and community groups to reduce the use of soft plastics. These include the use of reusable bags, the promotion of reusable containers, and the development of alternatives to single-use plastics.
Background on the RedCycle Program
RedCycle was founded in 20211 in Melbourne with the mission of solving the big soft plastic’s recycling issue Australia was facing.
In 2019, it was estimated that the average Australian produces 59kg of soft plastic a year (one of the highest number per capita worldwide) but unfortunately soft plastic cannot be recycled by the usual recycling plants: it’s difficult to sort without jamming the machines and requires a very particular chemical transforming process due to the multiple different layers of plastics it contains.
These physical characteristics paired with high costs of running a collection network (RedCycle was present in almost 2,000 stores around Australia) and a lack of market for finished products (bollards, benches, asphalt) have certainly had a huge impact on RedCycle long term profitability and cause the company to pause their scheme.
In June 2022, Close the Loop, the largest volume offtake partner of REDcycle, experienced a “significant” fire that forced their facility to close for reconstruction.
Another partner, Replas, suffered “significant pandemic-related downturns in market demand”, along with challenges like the delayed commercialisation of new products.
It has also been discovered that for months now, they soft plastic was collected but not recycled and was stored instead in various warehouses around Melbourne, causing also an investigation to arise to check the potential chemical hazard created.
This is aligning with a report published last year by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (Apco) which found that in 2020, just 16% of plastics were recycled. And the rate of soft plastic recycling was even lower: only 4%.
These rates make really unlikely for Australia to reach the goal set by the international High Ambition Coalition last November to end plastic pollution, which aims to recycle or reuse all plastic waste globally by 2040. Australia has also set a goal of making 70% of plastic packaging recyclable or compostable by 2025.
Current Soft Plastic Recycling Options
The current advice is to put your soft plastic in the landfill and to not stock up as it might cause the system to get overwhelmed when the option to recycle comes available again. We have to admit that we’re finding it very hard and since we have very limited consumption in our home, we are still holding on tight to our bag of recycling. But if the time will come, our plan is to keep at least all the soft plastics together in a closed bag to avoid as much as possible their dispersion in the landfill.
However, while RedCycle was the most advanced program in place able to sort and process the most types of soft plastics, there some other less known companies that are currently still operating and councils that are trialling a soft plastic curb collection.
We’ll include a list of what we found online but we encourage you to check with your local council and do your own Google search. Let us know if you find any additional initiative and we’ll add it to the list for everybody!
This company operates a number of programs that allow you to recycle a range of hard-to-recycle materials, including soft plastics, by getting a recycling box delivered to your house and then collected. It is worthy to pair up with a group of friends to buy a soft plastics Terracycle box, the cost will cover for return shipping and recycling.
Why we like it: it encourages small business and local groups to collaborate and rethink together their shopping habits.
Find it here.
A local community engagement program to collect, recycle and reuse soft plastics, keeping it out of landfill and the environment. They partner with organisations, including businesses, councils and schools, to collect their soft plastics and turn it into new and useful products for local communities to enjoy but they are also particularly focused on educating to rethink and reduce their plastic waste.
Why we like it: they provide a starter pack that includes a recycling station but also educational material to actually solve the problem of soft plastic waste. Find more information here.
Local council drop-off points
Many local councils have designated drop-off points for the recycling of soft plastics. You can check with your local council to see if there is a drop-off point near you.
An example is the Curby collection scheme, currently on trial in the councils of City of Adelaide, Charles Sturt, Central Coast and New Castle.
Why we like it: it makes recycling easy and give you points for recycling correctly your soft plastic.
Recycling through manufacturers
Some manufacturers of soft plastics, such as plastic bags, offer recycling programs for their products. You can check with the manufacturer of the product to see if they offer a recycling program.
It's worth to mention that Wonder has confirmed their Recycling Rewards Program for 2023: Once your kids' school signs up for the program, they'll receive a free starter pack with everything they need to start collecting. The collection phase kicks of during Term 2, and this is when the fun starts! Schools collect bread bags in collection boxes supplied by us and once a bin is full, schools post them to Wonder for free. For every bin returned, the school will get rewarded with points which you be exchanged for exciting sports equipment at the end of the program. Click here to learn more.
While progress has been made in reducing the use of soft plastics in Australia, there is still more work to be done. By continuing to raise awareness about the environmental impact of soft plastics and promoting the use of alternatives, it is possible to significantly reduce the amount of this type of waste being generated in the country.
The RedCycle collapse might be a blessing in disguise that will force us all to rethink our habits: with the numbers mentioned above, even if such program recommences, it will be able to tackle only a very limited amount of waste we create annually. For all these years, it has given us the reassurance that we were still doing the right thing by dropping our soft plastic at our local Coles or Whoolies and cleared regrets of buying that pack of chips, sliced bread or wrapped vegetables.
And this without mentioning that the nature of the products that can be created by recycling soft plastic are not actually fuelling a circular economy and limiting our impact on the planet: once a road’s asphalt is paved or a bench is made, that also constitute the end of life of that bag of chips. And it’s not exactly a zero-waste result.