Plastic bag recycling stumble shows governments need to kickstart markets

For everyone diligently setting aside their soft plastics so they can be taken to supermarket drop-off points for recycling, news that the program has been put on hold must be exasperating. Australians have proven they are willing to do the work to recycle their waste, but time and again the systems put in place to make good use of the materials have fallen short.

In this instance, instead of the soft plastics being reused, REDcycle, the company in charge of the operation, has been secretly stockpiling them in warehouses.

The Melbourne-based company, which claims to collect up to 5 million plastic items a day from drop-off points at nearly 2000 Coles and Woolworths supermarkets, said “several unforeseen challenges, exacerbated by the pandemic” meant that three companies that normally accepted the plastic for recycling were no longer doing so.

The processing problems are expected to continue until mid-2023, which could mean more than 1 billion plastic items – thousands of tonnes – are stockpiled in warehouses.

Every person in Victoria produces about two tons of waste a year. How and where that waste goes has become contentious since early 2018, when China put a stop to importing much of our recycled waste.

The collapse of the soft-plastics program is the latest in a series of setbacks to hit Australia’s nascent recycling industry. Fundamental to each stumbling block in establishing a viable system has been the imbalance between supply and demand.

Under the REDcycle scheme, users dropped off soft plastics at collection points at supermarkets across Australia.

In another recent example, some local councils that had promised residents they would introduce food waste collections this year are now unable to do so because processing facilities for food and garden organics are at capacity and not enough people want to buy the resulting compost.

An Infrastructure Victoria report from 2020 gave the state government a raft of recommendations that highlighted the need to focus on the end-to-end process of recycling.

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