Saturday, December 2, 2023

Soft Plastics Taskforce lays out path to restore soft plastic recycling

The Soft Plastics Taskforce has 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 been tasked with developing an interim solution to restore community access to soft plastic recycling following the suspension of the REDcycle program.

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 nationally 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,” according to a statement released by the Soft Plastics Taskforce.

“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.

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,” the spokesperson said.

The current timeline to launch an in-store collection pilot by late 2023 is contingent on the ability to clear REDcycle’s existing stockpiles of soft plastic, which Coles and Woolworths have recently been granted control of.

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.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) welcomes the Soft Plastics Taskforce’s recognition of the industry-led National Plastics Recycling Scheme (NPRS) as the model for the future of soft plastic packaging recycling in Australia.

AFGC CEO Tanya Barden congratulated the Soft Plastics Taskforce for setting out the Roadmap for restoring soft plastics recycling. Return-to-store collection will be reintroduced as a transitional solution and the Taskforce supports the NPRS as a model for a sustainable, long-term solution to divert more plastic packaging from landfill.

Ms Barden says the Taskforce Roadmap has highlighted the importance of increasing Australia’s soft plastics recycling capacity and developing end markets for recycled packaging content. The effects of limited markets for recycled soft plastics were made clear with the collapse of REDcycle – which collected less than five per cent of consumer soft plastics.

“The AFGC agrees that there is a crucial opportunity now to rethink the model for soft plastics recycling in Australia,” Ms Barden said.

The NPRS is being developed by the AFGC with funding support from the federal government and leading food and grocery manufacturers, and is now undergoing trials in Victoria, NSW and South Australia.

“The NPRS is a whole-of-supply chain plan that makes soft plastic recycling easy for consumers with kerbside collection. It has also stimulated commitments to invest in new advanced recycling infrastructure here in Australia,” Ms Barden said.

“Manufacturers, local councils, waste collectors and processors, advanced recyclers and plastics manufacturers are united in this plan for sustainable soft plastics recycling.

“Australia’s food and grocery manufacturers are committed to growing Australia’s recycling and circular economy infrastructure. The model for a soft plastics solution exists.”

Details of the National Plastics Recycling Scheme are available here.

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