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Long wait to unwrap soft plastics recycling disaster

Australians face a long wait for a new soft plastics recycling scheme, amid efforts to send mountains of stockpiled waste offshore.

Coles, Woolworths and ALDI have released their plan to get soft plastics recycling back on track after the collapse of the privately-run REDcycle scheme.

They warned it would be a slow, staged process.

It's hoped a pilot scheme at a select number of stores will be operating "from late 2023".

But that is "contingent on the ability to clear REDcycle's existing stockpiles of soft plastic", which Coles and Woolworths recently promised to deal with.

They are looking to ship that waste overseas to free up limited domestic recycling capacity.

"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,'' the supermarkets said.

"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."

The private company behind the REDcycle program is being wound up after it emerged plastics consumers returned to grocery stores had been stockpiled, not recycled.

REDcycle has denied being involved in a cover up, saying it was holding onto the waste while trying to ride out problems including the lack of recycling capacity.

The three grocery chains, which formed a task force after REDcycle collapsed, have warned that capacity problem will mean a slow restart.

"At present, it would not be possible to recycle the volume of household soft plastics collected in a supermarket program using domestic infrastructure,'' they said.

"Accordingly, the task force 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."

Circular economy experts said Australia has been reluctant to introduce government-mandated and -regulated schemes, despite overseas experience showing that's how to get the quick results.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the supermarkets' plan was a welcome step towards resuming resource recovery efforts and said the government was investing heavily in the nation's recycling capabilities.

But she also said she was prepared to regulate "if industry does not fix this".

Veteran campaigner Jeff Angel leads the Boomerang Alliance of 55 of Australia's leading community and environment groups and questions the decision to let industry resolve the problem.

"I don't think the community trusts the supermarkets and packaging sector to get it right on their own," Mr Angel says.

"It's absolutely vital that government regulates the sector to lock in broadscale collection systems for households; funding by producers and big retailers; and recycled content or less plastic or other alternative materials, in new packaging."

The supermarket task force agrees Australia needs a long-term, national soft plastic recycling strategy and said more waste could be diverted if systems were more convenient, and offered at the household level.

It pointed to a new kerbside collection model, outlined under the National Plastics Recycling Scheme and under development by the Australian Food and Grocery Council with funding from the federal government.

The model would see food and grocery manufacturers pay a levy to support the recycling of the soft plastics they create.

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation has estimated the REDcycle scheme collected less than five per cent of the soft plastic waste Australians generate.