Photography: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has called on Australia’s two biggest supermarket chains to come up with a “workable solution” after they were forced to suspend their main soft plastic recycling scheme.
REDcycle announced late yesterday that it was suspending collections at Woolworths and Coles, where customers were returning more than 5 million pieces of soft plastic every day.
The suspension came after the Age reported on Tuesday that soft plastic items were being stockpiled by REDcycle under the program rather than being recycled.
REDcycle confirmed that collections would stop from Wednesday, saying the two companies that took the recycled material could no longer accept material, with a fire at a factory and “decline in market demand” blamed.
The Melbourne-based initiative recommended people throw soft plastics in their general trash, saying it was “committed to getting the scheme back up and running as soon as possible”.
Woolworths and Coles said they would not be able to accept soft plastics for recycling and were now working on solutions.
“It shouldn’t be beyond these large supermarkets to find a viable solution to allow Australians to continue recycling,” Plibersek said on Wednesday.
“I expect Coles and Woolworths to step in and outline how they will handle soft plastic recycling. We are happy to work with them to achieve this.
“Their customers want to do the right thing, Coles and Woolworths should too.”
Earlier today, Woolworths said it was “disappointed” with the turn of events, saying it was working out options with the Australian Food and Grocery Council, the recycling industry and the Australian Packaging Covenant Organization ( APCO).
Related: Four bins good: is Victoria’s waste management strategy the future of recycling?
Coles said he was “working with government, industry and sustainability partners” to find a solution.
Plibersek said she had spoken with Coles, Woolworths and the Australian Food and Grocery Council about supermarkets’ responsibility to reduce packaging, replace it with less environmentally destructive alternatives and recycle all waste.
‘Coles and Woolies agree they feel the need and responsibility to act here and I have said the Australian Government is ready to help them take this step,’ she said.
She said the issue was difficult to fix immediately and she was having discussions with retailers about how to manage waste inventory and “provide better recycling options in the short term”.
Plibersek said the government had set aside $60 million to increase recycling of soft plastics and provided $1 million to the Australian Food and Grocery Council to work with industry to develop solutions. more durable for their soft plastics.
NSW Environment Minister James Griffin said he had asked the state’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to work immediately with Victoria’s EPA and Recycling Victoria to understand challenges affecting REDcycle operations.
Tony Chappel, chief executive of the NSW EPA, said the authority would “work with REDcycle to identify any issues with excessive storage and ensure appropriate action is taken to manage any potential risk”.
Jeff Angel, director of the Boomerang Alliance of more than 50 non-governmental organizations, said the collapse of the program revealed “deeper issues that need to be addressed if the community is to have confidence in recycling plastics”.
“REDcycle has been the flagship of the industry and the government says it is taking steps to recycle soft plastics, but it has only ever been a small operation compared to the 336,000 tonnes of soft plastics used and dumped each year. “, did he declare.
“The fundamental problem is the lack of a market to support a continued effort and this can only be solved by mandatory rules on recycled content, which industry and government have so far opposed.”
In a statement, APCO said it began an independent review of flexible plastics recycling last week after learning “the seriousness of the situation” with REDcycle.
APCO Managing Director Chris Foley said: “We know flexible plastic is a challenging packaging material for Australia and we need to manage it better. This is a short-term problem in the system largely related to the pandemic that coincides with unforeseen challenges faced by reprocessing partners.
He said the suspension of the REDcycle program was “a good opportunity for Australian brand owners and the packaging and recycling industries to pause and reset the way we deal with flexible plastics”.
“This reset will allow Australia to build continued sustainable pathways for soft plastic and APCO is working with industry stakeholders to address the issue and develop a robust and permanent solution.”