The collapse of the RED cycle: why the demise of the scheme may be good for the environment

the main points
  • Sustainability advocates say RED cycle stops should be a warning to reduce reliance on soft plastics.
  • Only a small percentage of the soft plastics used in Australia were recycled through the scheme.
  • The founder of Plastic-Free July says that the use and regulation of plastic production is required.
The woman behind a global movement calling for people to get rid of plastic for a month is among those who say pausing the REDcycle program could have a positive impact.
Amid concerns the items are not being recycled.
REDcycle said the public will no longer be able to toss soft plastic items into collection bins at Coles or Woolworths supermarkets.
The processing facilities it uses have temporarily halted processing of soft plastic while the organization is simultaneously dealing with a massive increase in the volume of plastic it has been receiving.

Sustainability advocates say this should be a wake-up call for more meaningful action to tackle plastic waste in Australia.

REDcycle allegedly gave supermarkets a ‘free pass’

Waste educator Lindsey Miles told SBS News REDcycle it was a “free pass” for supermarkets that served as collection points for recyclers.

Cart full of groceries in supermarket aisle.

Sustainability advocates say consumers need to be given better choices when it comes to packaging. source: GT / Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd

“They used it to say, ‘Look, we’re doing something,'” she said.

In fact, REDcycle has put the burden on customers and has recycled a small portion of the country’s plastic waste.
Redcycle said it has recycled 5.4 million pieces of soft plastic since it started in 2011. Australians use about 70 billion pieces of soft plastic each year.

“Instead of looking at their packaging and systems, and trying to reduce their use of plastic or change the way they work, they shift the burden to us and make dealing with it our problem,” Miles said.

Different options for waste management according to what is best for the planet

The waste hierarchy shows the different waste management options arranged according to the best option for the planet.

Waste reduction comes from avoiding using something and reusing items before recycling in what is known as a waste hierarchy.

Ms Miles said it should be easier for people to reduce their reliance on soft plastic.
“Not everyone can access supermarkets and reuse systems and options to avoid plastic – and that needs to change,” she said.

“As a society, we don’t buy disposable plastic because we love it, we buy it because everything comes from it smothered,” she wrote in a blog.

Call to organize plastic production

It is cheaper for companies to produce new plastic, and there is a lack of regulation to prevent it, said Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, founder of the Free Plastic July Project.

Woman standing in front of a restaurant menu board outside

Plastic-Free July Foundation and Plastic-Free Foundation Executive Director, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz. source: supplied / Tashi Hall

“Plastic producers, manufacturers and brand owners are able to use virgin [newly produced] plastic because it is cheaper and easier to use than recycled content.”

“We need legislation that requires trademark owners to use recycled content and for the industry to be responsible for packaging for the life of this item, just as we do with container filing schemes.”

Ms Prince-Ruiz said the pause on REDcycle created an opportunity for supermarkets to put pressure on brands.
“Switching to household reuse and refill schemes and offering products packaged in paper and other easy-to-recycle materials to consumers will go a long way in reducing plastic waste,” she said.

“Selling cleaning products as concentrates where water is added at home is another good way to reduce the total amount of packaging,” she said.

What is the future of soft plastic?

REDcycle said it was committed to getting the program back up and running and Ms Prince-Ruiz said it was a worthwhile scheme, but not on its own.
“REDcycle is a great program but it should be supported by entrepreneurs and it doesn’t have to be voluntary,” she said.
Woolworths and Coles said they are working with industry partners to support the future of soft plastic recycling.
Australia’s national packaging targets, backed by government and industry, aim to have 70 per cent of plastic packaging recycled or composted by 2025.

In the same period, the goal is to make 100 percent of packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable and for packaging to consist of an average of 50 percent recycled content.

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