Woolworths, Coles and Aldi join to tackle soft plastics crisis, amid calls to ‘start afresh’
REDcycle's collapse is a problem, but it was only recycling 5% of the soft plastics Australia produced. Photo: TND
Australia’s biggest supermarkets are banding together after the REDcycle debacle, but a sole focus on recycling could be neglecting the bigger plastic issue.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on Friday announced it has given Woolworths, Coles and Aldi conditional interim authorisation to form part of a Soft Plastics Taskforce, which is set to be initially chaired by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.
The taskforce will explore alternative soft plastic recycling solutions after REDcycle suspended its return-to-store soft plastics recovery program.
Trevor Thornton, senior lecturer at Deakin University, told The New Daily while the formation of the Soft Plastics Taskforce was a good first step, there should be more focus on avoiding plastic in the first place.
“[When looking] at waste management, don’t ask the question as to what to do with it, ask the question of why you’re generating it in the first instance. That’s the fundamental thing we need to go back to,” he said.
ACCC deputy chair Mick Keogh said the consumer watchdog had moved quickly to grant authorisation for the taskforce as the co-operation between the supermarket giants will “benefit us all” in the face of the environmental risk posed by existing and future waste.
“The ACCC expects [Woolworths, Coles and Aldi] to resolve this situation urgently and has placed a number of reporting conditions on them to ensure we are informed of their progress,” he said.
“Separate to the application for authorisation, the ACCC is engaging with various industry stakeholders and representative bodies to ensure clarity and transparency in communications so as to minimise the risk of consumers being misled by representations about the recycling of soft plastics.”
Bigger plastic problem at play
News that the shopping bags, chip packets, cling film and bread bags handed in to supermarkets to be recycled into things like furniture and playground equipment had instead been secretly stored in warehouses sparked anger from shoppers earlier this month.
At the time, REDcycle boss Liz Kasell blamed the company’s failure on ballooning demand.
“This means if you imagine a REDcycle bin and for five years it would have filled about once a day and we maintained that capacity, now all of a sudden it was filling 15 times a day,” she said.
The company’s challenges to keep up with demand reveal the elephant in the room – the world is using too much plastic.
Role for government
After news broke of REDcycle’s failure, Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek told parliament Coles and Woolworths should “step up” and explain how they will deal with recycling 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.
But Dr Thornton said the government needs to play an active role in finding a solution, along with other major retailers and stakeholders in Australia.
“It’s a great step by the supermarkets, but they’re not the only people who have got issues with soft plastics,” he said.
“I think that [the government] just needs to be more involved to get more consistency across the board … this is where you need to get the consistency between the various states, territories and businesses.”
Possible recycling solutions
REDcycle is not the only company offering soft plastic recycling; TerraCycle already works with major companies like Mecca and Colgate to recycle or reuse waste, and is associated with community collection hubs encouraging people to hand in plastic waste.
There is also Ecobricks, which makes ‘bricks’ out of plastic bottles packed with used plastic to be used in building furniture or gardens, and Curby, a NSW-based soft-plastic recycling program.
The major supermarkets have yet to name any potential new partners in their plastic-recycling endeavours.
Dr Thornton said there are many companies who could be ‘reinventing the wheel’ in recycling if they worked together – and had more incentive.
“The problem is that Australian businesses are not … using their economic market pull to get suppliers to change what they’re doing [and use more recyclable materials],” he said.
Rather than trying to fix the current system, Dr Thornton said retailers need to reinvent their ways of doing business.
“If you’re going to wrap plastics around food, there’s got to be food quality standards. Are those standards appropriate nowadays?” he said.
“Do we encourage and put into place more mechanisms for people to take their own containers? You could get five cents off a kilogram.
“We’ve got to be innovative and not try to fix what the current system is, but let’s go back and … start afresh.”