The Soft Plastic Recycling Saga: What Happened and Where We're At Now

Afonso Firmo
March 26, 2024
5 min read

Soft plastic recycling is back (kind of)!

Cast your mind back around a year (yes, it’s been that long already!). Coles and Woolworths both shockingly announce the suspension of the soft plastics collection program REDcycle, Australia’s only return-to-store, soft plastics recovery program. The country goes into a meltdown (okay, it was not that dramatic, but it was a shock nonetheless)!

So, what actually happened, and what alternatives do we have?

REDcycle operated by collecting and providing soft plastics to third parties with the capability to repurpose the plastic into another product. Before suspension, REDcycle was made viable by Melbourne-based recycling operator, Close the Loop, providing them thousands of tonnes of plastic/year to transform it into an additive and binding agent for asphalt.

In June 2022, a fire broke out at the Close the Loop factory, damaging the facility and bringing a halt to production. REDcycle didn’t inform the supermarkets or the public that it was no longer capable of recycling the thousands of tonnes of plastic material, instead stockpiling it for 5 months waiting for a new operator to come along to take the plastic. Alas, no one came along.

Despite Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek calling on the supermarkets to step up and find a viable solution to allow Australians to continue to recycle, a year came and passed, with no single cohesive program appearing to deal with Australia’s soft plastic waste. (You’d think with those profits they’ve been recording this past year, they’d be looking for solutions…)

Understanding Soft Plastics: The Packaging Predicament

Soft plastics are a ubiquitous part of our lives, found in plastic bags, pasta and rice bags, lolly and biscuit packets, fresh fruit and veg bags, frozen food bags, magazine and newspaper wrapping, cling wrap, and bubble wrap.

Why are Soft Plastics So Commonly Used?

Soft plastics are chosen for packaging due to their versatility, lightweight nature, and cost-effectiveness. They provide an excellent barrier against moisture, oxygen, and light, extending the shelf life of products and reducing food waste. Moreover, their flexibility allows for convenient packaging solutions, making them a popular choice for consumers and businesses alike.

Challenges of Soft Plastic Recycling

Despite their convenience and widespread use, soft plastics present significant challenges in the recycling process. When mixed with other recyclables like glass, paper, and metal, soft plastics can contaminate the recycling stream, compromising the quality of the recycled materials. Moreover, the mechanical recycling process used for rigid plastics is often not suitable for soft plastics, as they can become entangled in machinery or melt at different temperatures, leading to processing issues and decreased recycling efficiency.

Hope on the Horizon

If you’re lucky enough to live near one of the 12 Melbourne stores offering the trial service again, then you can start recycling your soft plastics again! Much like the original REDcycle scheme, the new small-scale trial in Victoria will see soft plastics collected, sorted, weighed and processed into a variety of products, including an additive for asphalt roads, a replacement for aggregate in concrete and a material for making shopping trolleys and baskets. To be a successful and lasting solution, the scheme must be cost-effective and suitably located, with established markets for the recycled products.

While the recent trial service in Melbourne offers a glimmer of hope, its success underscores the need for scalable solutions nationwide. Expanding initiatives like these can revolutionise soft plastic recycling, paving the way for a circular economy and reduced environmental impact. 

What Can You Do?

If you’re not in the vicinity of the 12 stores, then don’t lose hope! While we wait for the government and industry to catch up, you’ve got a few options:

  • Do some research to see if your council has a soft plastic recycling program - some of them do!
  • Check out RecycleSmart, a service that picks up all your hard-to-recycle things, including soft plastics - head to their website at our link in bio to see if they operate in your area!
  • Empower yourself to make a difference by reducing your soft plastic consumption. 
  • Opt for products with minimal packaging, explore alternatives to single-use plastics, and support businesses that prioritise sustainable packaging solutions
  • Advocate for improved recycling infrastructure and policies in your community

As we navigate the complexities of soft plastic recycling, let's remember that every action counts. By raising awareness, adopting sustainable practices, and advocating for change, we can collectively create a brighter, greener future for generations to come. Together, let's turn challenges into opportunities and make a lasting impact on our planet.

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