REDcycle’s collapse is further proof that plastic recycling is a broken system

This week, the federal government joined an international agreement to recycle or reuse 100 percent of plastic waste by 2040, ending plastic pollution. But big obstacles stand in the way.

The most recent is the collapse of the largest soft plastic recycling program, REDcycle. The show was put on hold after soft plastic items collected at Woolworths and Coles were revealed. had been stored for months in warehouses and is not recycled.

The abrupt halt to the soft plastics recycling scheme has left many consumers sorely disappointed, and the sense of betrayal is understandable. Recycling, with its familiar “chasing arrows” symbol, has been portrayed by the plastic industry as a response to the problem of single-use plastics for years.

But recycling is not a panacea. Most single-use plastics produced worldwide since the 1970s They are over in landfills and in the natural environment. You can also find plastics. in the food we eatand in the bottom of the deepest oceans.

The recent collapse of the soft plastics recycling scheme is further proof that plastics recycling is a broken system. Australia cannot achieve 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 pollutiona group of more than 30 countries co-led by Norway and Rwanda, and also including the UK, Canada and France.

Its goal is to deliver a global treaty banning plastic pollution by setting 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
REDcycle’s demise has left many consumers deeply disappointed.(ABC News: Simon Winter)

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

Unfortunately, the recycling process is much more complex and intertwined with 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 chasing arrow symbol is a number. If it is one or two, it is of 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 prevented many countries, including Australia, from developing advanced domestic recycling infrastructure.

What are the biggest problems?

One of the biggest problems with recycling plastics is the enormous diversity of plastics that end up in the waste stream: sheets, foams, sachets, numerous varieties of flexible plastic, and different additives that further alter the properties of the plastic.

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

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