Northern Beaches Council will soon trial a scheme to recycle ‘soft’ plastics, such as bread bags, food containers and bubble-wrap. This comes after the November collapse of a national recycling operation by REDcycle that collected an estimated 5 million items a day from across Australia and diverted them from landfill.
On Wednesday 1 March Council confirmed it would shortly provide details for a soft plastic drop off trial.
“‘Soft plastics’ or ‘scrunchable plastics’ are commonly used in consumer product packaging. Since the suspension of the national REDcycle program that ran out of popular supermarkets, our residents have not had anywhere to drop-off these plastics for recycling,” a statement read.
“At its meeting on 28 February, Council resolved to pursue a soft plastics collection and processing trial for the Northern Beaches at drop-off locations. Council is currently negotiating with recycling suppliers and will release trial details and the drop-off locations as soon as details are finalised.”
REDcycle reached redline
As previously reported in Manly Observer, on 8 November 2022, REDcycle announced that they were suspending their nationwide Return To Store recycling operation, which was run through 900 participating supermarkets.
The program saw the supermarkets, primarily Woolworths and Coles, place marked collection bins outside their stores in which to deposit single-use plastic packaging and containers, previously destined for garbage dumps.
REDcycle operators then collected and sorted the contents before forwarding it to dedicated processors, which, in turn, melted them down and moulded them into new long-term products, such as park benches, bollards and signs.
The three primary ‘re-purposers’ partnered with REDcycle, which was founded by Liz Kasell in 2011, were Plastic Forests in Albury, NSW (although the contract ended in February 2021), Replas in Ballarat, Victoria (which also ceased participation in November 2022), and Close the Loop in Somerton, Melbourne.
REDcycle claim they “recovered and recycled over 540 million pieces of soft plastic since 2011.”
REDcycle’s 8 November announcement to suspend operations followed a huge blaze that broke out on the production line at the Close the Loop factory on 9 June 2022. The inferno took over 50 firefighters five hours to douse and postponed production until July 2023.
Close the Loop was, until then, smelting the waste plastic into a binding agent for road asphalt called TonerPlas that increased its durability.
On 22 November 2022, councillors Rory Amon (Liberal, Pittwater) and Kristyn Glanville (Greens, Curl Curl), concerned that single-use plastic was now significantly increasing in household waste bins across the Northern Beaches, introduced a motion to Council to facilitate soft plastics recycling.
Cr Amon told Manly Observer, “You might have recently read about the troubles being faced by RedCycle, meaning that soft plastics recycling is now virtually at a standstill in Australia. Our community are very conscious when it comes to recycling given the obvious benefits this has in protecting our precious environment and minimising our respective environmental footprints.”
Fellow councillors agreed that alternatives to REDcycle should be sourced – which has this week been set into motion.
Mayor Michael Regan explained that although soft plastics recycling needs a national supply-chain solution to deal with the annual thousands of tonnes of waste packaging that should be diverted from landfill, finding local solutions helped alleviate the problem.
“The best thing anyone can do to help solve our soft plastics problem is to avoid them,” he said, “but avoiding them altogether is almost impossible.
“We have spent years investigating the collection and recycling of soft plastics and exploring possible options for schemes and programs that will help facilitate recycling within our community. There are real challenges facing soft plastics recycling, but we want to help find long-term solutions and alternatives.
“This trial is an excellent step in the right direction, and we’re hoping it leads to keeping soft plastics out of landfill as much as possible.”
It is highly unlikely REDcycle will return to recycling single-use plastic, of which only an estimated four percent is diverted from landfill.
On 27 February, the NSW Supreme Court ordered that the parent company of RedCycle, RG Programs and Services, be wound up, following an application by a plaintiff, Big Tee Group, alleging an unpaid debt of $200,000 to cover their storage of around 600 tonnes of waste plastics. Farnsworth Carson were appointed as liquidators.
Furthermore, the Environment Protection Agency Victoria, the state’s environmental regulator, is bringing three charges against RG Programs alleging the company failed to disclose the amount of waste plastic it was hoarding in warehouses.
On 9 November 2022, Packaging News, the industry newsletter, claimed that “Rather than being recycled, it turns out the soft plastics returned to stores have been stockpiled in warehouses, a practice that is deemed an environmental and safety risk.
“As investigations revealed the ‘secret stockpile’, REDcycle announced yesterday it would be ceasing collection via Coles and Woolworths.”
In an interview the same day with Channel Nine’s Today program, Liz Kasell, founder of REDcycle and the CEO and sole shareholder of RG Programs and Services, was asked where it went wrong.
Ms Kasell explained, “We saw this huge increase on one end on the supply side, and a big decrease on the demand side during the [Covid-19] pandemic, because there was a market downturn. And the demand for recycled products, which is critical to the success of recycling, significantly dropped off.”
Supermarkets instructed to clean up the mess
On 27 February, REDcycle released a statement in the wake of the NSW Supreme Court liquidation ruling, saying, “REDcycle regrettably announced the pause of the collection program in November 2022…
“Since the program pause, we’ve had negotiations with governments, regulators, potential partners, leading manufacturers who all share our vision and recognise the power of the community movement and critical recovery pipeline REDcycle has created. We understand people’s disappointment and frustration. But we are uplifted and strengthened by the overwhelming support from community, industry, and partners.
“REDcycle helped revolutionise how Australians consider plastics and recycling, and with it, created a movement…
“We welcome the support and collaboration by Woolworths and Coles announced in recent days.”
On Wednesday 22 February, the NSW Environment Protection Agency (NSW EPA) issued a draft Clean-up Notice to Coles and Woolworths “to manage the recovery, recycling and lawful removal of more than 5200 tonnes of soft plastic stockpiled across the state” by REDcycle.
REDcycle has admitted to stockpiling more than 12,000 tonnes of plastic across three states, NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
NSW EPA continued: “Beyond the interim storage measures, the revised notice gives the retailers 12 months to develop a lawful solution that determines the future of the materials, whether that be reprocessing at a recycling facility, exporting it overseas, or, as a last resort, sending it to landfill.”
In a joint statement released on Monday 27 February, Coles and Woolworths, which reportedly paid $20million to REDcycle over the past decade to remove waste plastics in the Return to Store scheme, said: “We’re pleased this agreement will provide greater certainty that REDcycle’s stockpiles will be responsibly managed for the best possible environmental outcome.
“We will be commencing work this week to address the current stockpile storage issues and conducting inspections of the REDcycle material over the coming weeks.”
Tony Chappel, CEO of the NSW EPA, responded, “We welcome the decision by both retailers to prioritise the safety of NSW communities and take responsibility for the REDcycle stockpiles in NSW.”
Northern Beaches Council declared it “will also continue to monitor the market and look at opportunities for larger-scale collections and recycling, should funding and markets for recycled soft plastics be available.”
In the meantime, “Council will continue to work with the community to promote and educate residents around living sustainably, avoiding waste and recycling.”