REDcycle collapse: why the demise of the scheme may be a good thing for the environment

Key points
  • Sustainability advocates say REDcycle’s pause operations should be a warning to reduce reliance on soft plastics.
  • Only a small proportion of the soft plastics used in Australia were recycled through the scheme.
  • Plastic Free July founder says the use and regulation of plastic production is required.
The woman behind a global movement calling on people to go plastic-free for a month is among those who say the pause in the REDcycle program has the potential to have a positive impact.
amid concerns, items were not being recycled.
REDcycle said the public will no longer be able to throw soft plastics into collection bins at Coles or Woolworths supermarkets.
The processing facilities it used had temporarily stopped processing soft plastics, and at the same time, the organization was dealing with a huge increase in the volume of plastic it was receiving.

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” to supermarkets that acted as collection points for the recycler.

A cart full of groceries in the aisle of a supermarket.

Sustainability advocates say consumers should have better options when it comes to packaging. Font: Getty / jacobs stock photography ltd

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

In reality, REDcycle put the responsibility on customers and recycled a small portion of the nation’s plastic waste.
REDcycle said it had recycled 5.4 million pieces of soft plastic since it started in 2011. Australians use around 70 billion pieces of soft plastic each year.

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

The different waste management options depending on which one is best for the planet

The Waste Hierarchy shows the different waste management options ordered by which is the best for the planet.

Reducing waste by avoiding using something and reusing items predates recycling in what is known as the waste hierarchy.

Ms Miles said it had 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,” he said.

“As a society, we’re not buying single-use plastic because we love it, we’re buying it because it’s all drowning in it,” he wrote in a blog post.

Call to regulate plastic production

Plastic Free July founder Rebecca Prince-Ruiz said it was cheaper for companies to create new plastic and there was a lack of regulation to stop them.

A woman standing in front of a restaurant menu board outside

Plastic Free July Founder and Executive Director of the Plastic Free Foundation, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz. Font: supplied / tashi hall

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

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

Ms Prince-Ruiz said the REDcycle hiatus created an opportunity for supermarkets to put pressure on brands.
“Switching to reuse and refill schemes for households and offering consumers products packaged in paper and other easily recyclable materials will go a long way to reduce plastic waste,” he said.

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

What is the future of soft plastics?

REDcycle has said it is committed to getting the program up and running again and Ms Prince-Ruiz said it’s a worthwhile scheme, but not on its own.
“REDcycle is a great scheme, but it needs the support of companies and it shouldn’t be voluntary,” he said.
Woolworths and Coles have said they are 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 per cent of plastic packaging to be recycled or composted by 2025.

In that same period, the goal is for 100 percent of packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable and for packaging to be comprised of an average of 50 percent recycled content.

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