Supermarket giants announce return of soft plastics recycling by late 2023 despite lack of recyclers
Coles, Woolworths and Aldi are hoping to restart a soft plastics collection and recycling program by the end of the year but warn there remain major obstacles to meeting that self-imposed deadline.
The supermarkets released their joint “Roadmap to Restart” plan on Tuesday despite being unable to guarantee that recyclers have been found to process the more than 12,400 tonnes of plastics stockpiled by former operator REDcycle or that the capacity exists for the program to be re-started.
REDcycle has turned over control of 12,400 tonnes of stockpiled plastics to Coles and Woolworths
They envision collections being restarted on a pilot basis in select stores in late 2023.
Coles, Woolworths and Aldi are part of a soft plastics taskforce that was convened by the federal government after the collapse of the REDcycle scheme in early November.
“While the Taskforce is working to launch in-store collections urgently, it is severely constrained by Australia’s limited access to domestic soft plastic recycling which can manage the ‘mixed polymer’ soft plastics that are deposited by the public in supermarket collection bins,” a spokesperson for the supermarkets said.
“From late 2023, the Taskforce will meet the newly available processing capacity with a staged re-introduction of in-store collections so that the volume of incoming household soft plastics does not exceed the amount that can be recycled, as occurred with REDcycle.”
But the plan, which is light on details, is also contingent on clearing the massive backlog created by the failure of the REDcycle program, which the taskforce estimates could take at least a year to recycle.
“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 spokesperson said.
The taskforce is also considering sending some plastics to “trusted” overseas recycling facilities.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the announcement was a major step forward for the recycling sector, crediting the Labor government for creating the conditions for the deal to be reached.
“The Albanese Labor government welcomes the announcement today by Coles and Woolworths of a path forward to resume soft plastics collection,” she said.
“This was possible because we moved to bring the supermarkets together and obtained ACCC approval for them meeting to resolve the problems created by the collapse of REDcycle.”
The supermarket chains have been ordered by the NSW environment regulator to remove 5200 tonnes of soft plastics stored by REDcycle around the state within 10 weeks.
NSW’s Environment Protection Authority served final clean-up notices to Coles and Woolworths on Friday to “address the potential fire and pollution risk posed by the stockpiling” by May 15.
The EPA notices allege that Coles and Woolworths directly contributed to the pollution risk by promoting the REDcycle program, allowing their premises to be used as collection points and underwriting the costs of the recycling scheme.
Soft plastics have been stockpiled after the collapse of the REDcycle scheme.
The supermarkets must remove the material from 15 separate warehouses and send it for recycling, disposal in landfill or storage at an approved facility for up to one year.
In late February, Coles and Woolworths announced it had made a deal with REDcycle to take control of the entire 12,400 tonnes of plastic amassed by the failed recycler in three states.
But correspondence between the EPA and the supermarkets, obtained by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, shows the regulator is concerned at the lack of a concrete plan for the disposal of the high-risk materials.
“While we note your commitment to take voluntary measures, the EPA considers that the seriousness of the incident warrants a formal regulatory response from the EPA using its powers in a transparent and publicly accountable way,” the EPA letter from March 2 says.
“The seriousness of the incident is indicated by the number of sites, the volume of stockpiled material, the long duration that some material has apparently been stored for, the absence of required development consent at most of the sites, the widespread non-compliance with appropriate fire safety guidelines and the breadth of environmental issues identified during the EPA’s inspections.”
More to come.
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