UPDATE 23 June 2017:
I am very pleased to announce that Red Group is now collecting soft plastic for recycling through the Red Cycle Program in Gippsland Coles stores. The participating Coles stores include: Warragul, Moe, Morwell, Traralgon, Sale, Bairnsdale and Wonthaggi. Please read the original article below to know more about what can be recycled and how, and also to know what happens to the soft plastic at Coles and Woolworths stores not participating in Red Cycle.
Currently, there are no supermarkets in Gippsland collecting soft plastic like shopping bags, bread bags, chip packets and frozen pea bags for recycling through the REDcycle program. Some of you wouldn’t have known soft plastic was recyclable until now, but many of you will be ready to tell me I’m wrong. After all, a reliable source told you about it and you’ve seen or used the collection bins yourself. But, due to some misinformation I noticed spreading through the region I decided to get the facts from the companies involved and I uncovered some interesting things. Plus, I have some good news to share and there’s still a way to recycle soft plastic so it doesn’t end up in landfill.
Who recycles soft plastic and why doesn’t it occur in Gippsland?
Firstly, most councils can’t accept soft plastic for recycling via their kerbside collection because the soft plastic jams the automated sorting machines at the Materials Recovery Facility. This is the case for all Gippsland Shires and that’s why you may have been advised to put soft plastic in your landfill bin. As a side note, neighbouring Cardinia Shire Council does accept some soft plastic in the kerbside recycling bins, read more here.
In 2011, RED Group launched the REDcycle program in Melbourne Coles and Woolworths stores which invites consumers to return all their soft plastic for recycling. Since then they have spread to 630 participating Coles and Woolworths supermarkets (not IGA or any other supermarkets) around Australia, but none as yet in Gippsland. The closest participating stores for Gippslanders are in Pakenham. Anyone can use the REDcycle Store Locator to find their closest drop off point.
RED Group collects the soft plastic from participating supermarkets for processing and delivery to Victorian manufacturer, Replas, where it’s used to make recycled-plastic products such as bollards, signage, fitness circuits and sturdy outdoor furniture suitable for use in schools, parks, public spaces and commercial premises.
The reason REDcycle hasn’t expanded to Gippsland is because the business is still small and needs to be measured in its approach to expansion to ensure the program can continue to thrive. RED Group needs to be careful they don’t end up with too much plastic in stockpiles that can’t be used by Replas. The cost of collecting material from rural areas is also prohibitive, but most importantly there needs to be demand for the end product. Someone has to use the recycled plastic bollards and furniture. The more people that use the end product, the more waste plastic can be collected and recycled. Replas’ video, The Pull Through Effect, explains this well. So up until this point, it hasn’t been viable to collect soft plastic from Gippsland.
Great news from Coles and REDcycle
Coles and REDcycle told me that due to the Gippsland Unwrapped community and other passionate individuals making it known they want to be able to recycle soft plastic, they have begun assessing the viability of collecting from Gippsland. They are keen to make this happen and their assessment will be completed in the next few weeks. I will share the outcome with you. Congratulations everyone for once again proving that individual actions do make a difference.
Exactly which plastics am I talking about?
The following items can be recycled via the REDcycle Program:
- Bread, pasta & rice bags
- Cereal box liners
- Biscuit packets
- Frozen food bags
- Ice cream wrappers
- Squeeze pouches
- Plastic sachets
- Bubble wrap
- Chocolate & muesli bar wrappers
- Silver-lined chip & cracker packets
- Confectionery bags
- Fresh produce bags
- Netting citrus bags
- Polypropylene bags
- Plastic film from grocery items like nappies and toilet paper
- Australia Post satchels
- Newspaper wrap
- Sturdy pet food bags
- Large sheets of plastic that furniture comes wrapped in (cut into pieces the size of an A3 sheet of paper first)
RED Group says “If the plastic CAN be scrunched into a ball in your hand (and it doesn’t immediately spring back into its original shape when you release your hand), it can be placed in a REDcycle Program drop off bin. If it CAN’T be scrunched, it should be recycled at home via your kerbside collection.”
More good news: what you can do with your soft plastic in the meantime
Even though the REDcycle Program isn’t yet operating in Gippsland, you may be able to get to one of the drop off points at some stage, so save any soft plastic you have been unable to avoid to do this.
If you can’t get to one of the drop off points, then you can post your plastic to: 38 Chelmsford Street, Williamstown North VIC 3016. It is not a free postal service because the reality is that used post-consumer plastic has very little value, particularly when the price of oil is low, and REDcycle still needs to allocate resources to processing the material before it is delivered to Replas.
Tips for suppling REDcycle with your soft plastic:
- Packaging should be ‘empty and dry’ but a limited amount of contamination can be tolerated.
- Cut large pieces of bubble wrap into smaller pieces about the size of an A3 sheet of paper.
- It’s fine to bundle up all your unwanted single use shopping bags and packaging in another bag and tie it up, before placing in a REDcycle Program drop off bin. They don’t need to be loose like your council’s rigid plastic kerbside recycling needs to be. This is because the sorting processes are different.
- You don’t need to peel off small paper labels, but you should take off those bigger than A5 size.
- There’s no need to cut rigid plastic spouts and lids off squeeze pouches.
- Don’t include rigid biscuit trays, only the soft wrapper.
- Don’t include degradable, compostable, or bio degradable bags. Bags that are labelled degradable or compostable have been specifically manufactured to break down in the general waste stream. They can’t be used because they will degrade before being processed.
What else can you do?
The most important thing you can do to ensure soft plastic recycling reaches Gippsland is use the end product yourself or lobby others like schools and councils to use it. Some of the benefits for councils are that the REDcycle program creates a solution to waste that they don’t have to pay for, and the end products are environmentally sound, lasting 50 years instead of just two years, which will reduce maintenance and replacement costs.
So, what’s happening to the soft plastic being dropped off in supermarket recycle bins across Gippsland?
That’s a question that has taken me weeks of investigating. Coles was first to respond with this information:
“We can confirm this plastic [from Gippsland Coles stores] would be used by Visy in their gasifier to power their recycling plant.”
Simplistically, this means Visy burn the plastic to create energy. In the waste industry this process is known as ‘waste-to-energy’ or ‘energy recovery’.
Woolworths also eventually confirmed that their soft plastic material goes to Visy:
“What happens with our plastic bags is that they are bundled with the plastic film our stores accumulate (i.e. when delivery palettes arrive they are wrapped in flexible plastic film) so all of that material goes to Visy.”
When asked what happens to the plastic after that, staff said it is recycled by Visy but when asked about how and what it is recycled into, I was told no more information would be shared. Until I get this information, I will have doubts about it being recycled because I can’t find anything online about Visy recycling soft plastic, only saying not to recycle it, and why wouldn’t a company want to share a recycling story with the public. Very strange. I will update my post if I ever find out what it is recycled into. In my attempts to be absolutely thorough, I also pursued comment from Visy via phone and email and was provided with this statement:
“Visy is not in a position to provide you with the information you have requested, as Visy cannot comment publicly regarding its commercial arrangements with its customers. If you require further detail regarding your inquiry please speak directly with the companies involved.”
But what about the other supermarkets? Someone once told me their IGA Supermarket collected soft plastic for recycling so I called almost half the stores across Gippsland (because they are all independently owned and operated) to find out. Those stores were: Bairnsdale, Churchill, Korumburra, Leongatha, Mallacoota, Neerim South, Poowong, Sale, San Remo, Traralgon, Wonthaggi. I found Korumburra and Leongatha to be the only ones collecting soft plastic from customers. I was told by those staff that the plastic went to Visy.
Recycling is better than recovery of energy, but refusing is best
On the surface, recovery of energy (waste-to-energy) sounds good because it is a shift away from landfill, but it is contested technology and it is still combustion which destroys the resources for good. Recycling (processing waste materials to make the same or different products) is the preferred option because it keeps materials in the productive economy and benefits the environment by decreasing the need for new materials and waste absorption. Recovering energy from materials may be a better option than landfill when further recycling is not possible. However, refusing and reducing the generation of waste in the first place needs to be the highest priority for community, industry and government to reduce the amount of virgin materials extracted and used. To be more sustainable we must get better at avoiding unnecessary consumption and being more efficient with our resources. It’s a bit like managing our health, prevention is better than cure.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you have additional information to share about any topic covered in this post.
Thank you RED Group, Replas, Coles, IGA, Woolworths and Visy for your cooperation, and thank you to all the individuals I spoke to who answered my questions to the best of their ability.