Update on soft plastics initiatives

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has welcomed an announcement by major retailers establishing a path forward to resume soft plastics collection.

"The reality is that we have a plastics problem in Australia. We need to produce less, use less, and better reuse what we have," the minister said in an announcement.

The retailers, under the recently ACCC approved Soft Plastics Taskforce, released a 'Roadmap to Restart', outlining the steps needed to launch a new supermarket soft plastic collection scheme, and the current state of play in the Australian recycling industry. 

The Taskforce, made up of major supermarket retailers ALDI, Coles and Woolworths, has just announced that it has been tasked with developing an interim solution to restore community access to soft plastic recycling following the suspension of the REDcycle program.

The Taskforce announced:

Under the current plan, an initial in-store collection pilot is anticipated to launch in select stores in late 2023 - provided that REDcycle’s existing soft plastic stockpiles can be cleared prior. The new program would then be gradually rolled out nationwide next year.

While the Taskforce is working to launch in-store collections urgently, it is severely constrained by Australia’s limited access to domestic soft plastic recycling which can manage the “mixed polymer” soft plastics that are deposited by the public in supermarket collection bins. 

At present, it would not be possible to recycle the volume of household soft plastics collected in a supermarket program using domestic infrastructure. Accordingly, the Taskforce has plotted out the projected gradual increase in Australian soft plastic recycling capacity over the next year, as new operators launch, and existing processors expand.

From late 2023, the Taskforce will meet the newly available processing capacity with a staged re-introduction of in-store collections so that the volume of incoming household soft plastics does not exceed the amount that can be recycled - as occurred with REDcycle.

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A spokesperson for the Taskforce said: “For the vast majority of Australian households, the only avenue to recycle their soft plastic waste has been through the REDcycle bins available at Coles and Woolworths supermarkets.

“Restoring public trust in soft plastic recycling is paramount, and the Taskforce will reintroduce soft plastic collections when it can be confident that it will be properly recycled. We owe it to consumers to get this right.

“The best way to accelerate nationwide access to soft plastic recycling is through continued investment in recycling facilities to bring forward existing plans to expand domestic capacity.

“We thank the Department of Environment, the Minister for Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek, and industry for their support. We look forward to their continued contribution as we design this stepping stone towards a circular economy for soft plastic.”

Should new domestic processing capacity be taken up by the estimated 12,000 tonnes of stockpiled material for at least a year, the recommencement of in-store collections will be delayed. Accordingly, Coles and Woolworths intend to work through options to export the stockpiles to trusted recycling facilities overseas with the necessary transparency, traceability and government approvals. This would allow access to advanced recycling beyond Australia’s existing domestic capabilities.

Over the coming months, the Taskforce hopes to engage other retailers, e-commerce platforms and consumer brands that generate soft plastics to contribute to the development of the new in-store collection program.

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation estimates that less than five per cent of consumer soft plastic was collected by the REDcycle program. The Taskforce recognises the need for a long-term national soft plastic recycling strategy beyond its interim program, which has the potential to significantly increase the proportion of household soft plastic collected.

The spokesperson for the Taskforce added: “We recognise that in the long-term, more soft plastic could be diverted from landfill if future schemes are more convenient for consumers and can meet soft plastic at the point where it becomes waste - the household. 

“It is crucial that this opportunity to rethink Australia’s future national soft plastic recycling model is not overlooked.”

The National Plastics Recycling Scheme (NPRS) outlines a new kerbside model to collect more household soft plastics. It has been developed by the Australian Food and Grocery Council with funding support from the Australian Federal Government’s National Product Stewardship Investment Fund. The scheme is based on a model which would see food and grocery manufacturers pay a levy to support the recycling of the soft plastics they create. It is currently being trialled in select areas.

The Victorian Government has announced a future state-wide rollout of kerbside soft plastic recycling, pending the success of the current NPRS trial. The Taskforce applauds this move and strongly encourages state and territory governments to support their local councils to do the same to ensure as much household soft plastic is saved from landfill as possible.

The Taskforce will continue to provide updates on its progress through 2023. The Roadmap can be accessed through Aldi , Coles or Woolworths websites.