Failure of Coles, Woolworths program highlights ugly recycling reality

Supermarket customers have been shocked by revelations soft plastics they dropped at Coles and Woolworths have not been recycled for months.

Instead, shopping bags, food wrappers and bubble wrap collected as part of the supermarket recycling program REDcycle has been delivered to long-term storage warehouses.

Customers were unaware of the problem until it was reported in The Age on Tuesday, leading to concern about the program’s lack of transparency. Founder of recycling advocacy charity Total Environment Centre (TEC) Jeff Angel fears secrecy about the program’s failure will “increase cynicism about recycling”. “I think this mistake will cause damage to community confidence,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

Pictured left is the front of a Woolworths store with a man pulling a cart out the front. Right is a Coles storefront. Vegetables can bee seen out the front.
The REDcycle soft plastic recycling scheme relied on by Coles and Woolworths has been suspended. Source: AAP (File)

Revelations about the program came on the first day of National Recycling Week. In a statement, the company announced it will be temporarily pausing operations.

On Tuesday night REDcycle announced “several unforeseen challenges” which were “exacerbated by the pandemic” meant its associates stopped accepting the soft plastics it collected. The company's largest recycling partner Melbourne-based Close the Loop also stalled operations after it was impacted by a fire in June.

REDcycle CEO Liz Kasell said her team is “devastated” that the program “will be paused”. “We are going to do everything that we can, in partnership with retail, industry and government, to have it back up and running again soon,” she said.

REDcycle denies the stockpiling was part of a secret coverup, and that the program was suspended because there are no capable recycling partners available to process it. It says the plastic was warehoused at its own expense and had planned to have it processed once processors were back online.

Comments from customers online expressed a mix of emotions. "Sad, but not at all surprising! So sick of all the greenwashing," one angry comment read. "Thank you for all you have done. Hopefully there will be a solution," someone else wrote. Others placed the blame for the program's failure on supermarkets not being proactive. What about some assistance from Coles and Woolworths?? They sell all this plastic in the first place," another person said.

Key REDcycle facts:

  • Unlike hard plastics, soft ones cannot be put in your recycling bin

  • Since 2019 there has been a 350 per cent increase in soft plastic returned

  • REDcycle collects 7000 tonnes of material a year

  • Close the Loop intends to process 5,000 tonnes a year once operational

Minister expects Coles and Woolworths to ‘step up’

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said in a statement “issues facing the program are unfortunate” and that Coles and Woolworths must take responsibility for helping to recycle their soft plastics.

“It shouldn’t be beyond these big supermarkets to come up with a viable solution to allow Australians to continue to recycle,” she said. “I expect Coles and Woolworths to step up and indicate how they will deal with soft plastic recycling. We’re happy to work with them to achieve this.”

A rubbish tip under the harsh sun.
Until the REDcycle program is operational, soft plastics will end up in landfill. Source: Getty (File)

It is understood Coles and Woolworths only became aware of problems with REDcycle very recently. In a statement, Coles said it is committed to finding a long-term solution to soft plastic recycling.

“Coles has been advised that due to industry-wide challenges with soft plastic recycling, all REDcycle soft plastic collections from stores will be paused until further notice,” a Coles spokesperson said in a statement. “This means we will be unable to accept soft plastic recycling returns in Coles stores and through Coles Online at this time.”

Woolworths is also unable to accept soft plastics and announced it was "disappointed" by the situation, adding it was working with industry stakeholders to provide a solution. "We sincerely apologise to our customers and we’re working to return access to soft plastic recycling as soon as possible," a company spokesperson said.

Mandatory soft plastic recycling on the cards

TEC's Mr Angel has been been a critic of resistance to enforce mandatory soft plastic recycling by the previous federal government and The Australian Packaging Covenant (APCO) — which administers the national regulatory framework of packaging disposal and reuse.

Having taken on the role of APCO CEO just three months ago, Chris Foley concedes the “optics on this are not good and are really disappointing” to both the community and industry stakeholders.

He told Yahoo News Australia on Monday that while mandating packaging recycling is a government decision, APCO is “open to all solutions”. While a mandate may sound like a simple solution, Mr Foley said the industry faces two key problems. “We need the market to respond. That's both in the ability to recover (packaging), and the ability to reprocess it into material that's usable and financially valuable,”

APCO has commissioned an independent review of the current situation that will focus on “what’s gone wrong” and how to improve both optics and governance. “It will be used to bring the packaging system together to focus on locking in and agreeing on pathways forward,” he said. The report is due in three weeks.

Mr Foley wants to reassure consumers the recycling issue will be a short-term one and APCO is working to find solutions. “In the meantime, the consumer is best to either hold on to the product at home or put it in the waste bin knowing that will go to landfill,” he said.

Printer cartridge recycling impacted by fire

It’s not just the recycling of soft plastics that have have been impacted by the fire at Close the Loop. Since June 22, more than 1.1 million printer cartridges have also been stockpiled.

While the recycling process is on hold, aspects of the program including plastic sorting and cartridge refurbishment continue. It says cartridge collection will continue as normal and recycling will resume once the plant reopens — likely mid-2023.

Close the Loop is Australia’s only printer cartridge recycler with a zero-waste-to-landfill capability and environment group Planet Ark partners with them to recycle material collected. Under its Cartridges 4 Planet Ark program at least 51.7 million cartridges have been collected and 50 million have been processed.

“Due to fire closing their plant they have been safely storing the cartridges collected in the Cartridges 4 Planet Ark program until recycling capacity is back online,” a Planet Ark spokesperson said. Cartridges will continue to be collected and stored in what Planet Ark says is a safe manner.

Close the Loop has been contacted for comment.

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