It’s National Recycling Week, so what better way to highlight the topic than to witness the “collapse” of the REDcycle soft plastics recycling service?!
Media outlets are running with sensational headlines about “secret stockpiling” of soft plastics, but they are missing the point that the community is attempting to fix pollution created by manufacturers.
REDcycle was founded 11 years ago, not by a City Council or a waste management company, but by a Melbourne mum who wondered why an empty bread bag or biscuit packet couldn’t be recycled. Liz Kasell sought out Replas, a company that was making park benches from used plastics, and worked with some primary schools to start collecting bags. It became apparent that most plastics come from supermarket products, so she then approached Coles.
The program grew from there into a significant national soft plastic collection and recycling service, diverting 5.4 billion pieces of plastic from landfill to several companies turning them into products from furniture to asphalt.
Lids4Kids, founded by Canberra dad Tim Miller, has a similar story of setting up a social enterprise to collect plastic bottle lids excluded from government recycling services, donating them to Envision who make mobility aids for children with disabilities. Within months the scheme was collecting millions of lids across the country and Envision had to diversify its products to keep up with supply.
Both services are cases of ordinary people becoming horrified by the absence of sustainable solutions for problems that industry has created. The rapid and massive expansion of the two schemes demonstrates the scale of the problem and the community’s concern about and willingness to solve it.
But community concern and ingenuity is clearly not enough. REDcycle has “paused” collection because it is overwhelmed with the vast quantities of incoming plastics and the inability of its processing partners to keep up. Similarly, Lids4Kids desperately needs proper, permanent premises for its volunteers (yes, unpaid workers) to sort and store the ever-increasing quantity of coloured plastics that people “donate” by the bucketload.
What’s really needed, though, is a seismic shift in the industry, from a post-consumer “waste” management mentality to a genuinely circular approach that values materials already in production and use. There’s little incentive for investment in recycling machinery if those companies have insufficient demand for their recycled products. There’s little incentive for manufacturers to use recycled materials if they can buy new raw plastic stock (made from petroleum oil) more cheaply than recycled stock and they never have to deal with their own products after sale.
There’s a popular bread company, for example, touting its sustainability credentials by splashing “This bag is 100% recyclable” prominently on its bread bags. This might be a “category first”, but until those bags (and every other soft plastic product in existence) are made FROM 100% recycled plastic, it’s not genuinely sustainable.
Governments urgently need to set ambitious targets for mandatory inclusion of recycled material in all plastic products, and require labelling of percentage recycled content. They could disincentivise the use of excess and virgin raw materials through regulation or prohibition of problematic unrecyclable materials, and taxes to shift the pricing signals in favour of circular resource recovery and reuse. They need to support the industry to develop commercially viable solutions for categories such as bottle lids and soft plastics, through innovative product and materials design as well as recycling technologies.
Industry needs to also step up and take responsibility for what it produces, by eliminating unrecyclable products and packaging and taking back materials for reuse. Companies could partner with local governments and community-led initiatives to understand how to help consumers return materials into clean, separated waste recovery streams for high-quality raw materials.
This National Recycling Week, there are opportunities for consumers and businesses to provide feedback to governments and industry. Let the NSW Government know that their Container Deposit Scheme should be expanded to include a wider variety of products. “Have your say” about the ACT Government’s next phase of single-use plastics reduction and sign the Conservation Council’s ‘Race to zero waste’ petition calling for more action. Find resources for how to make your business circular at CBR360.org.au.