Recycling failure leaves us drowning in plastic

For a while there we thought we had banished a demon: someone wanted our plastic bags, those poster children of human excess and a trashed environment. Millions of Australians dutifully gathered together all their soft plastic detritus and every month or so delivered a bulging bagful to their local supermarket. 

Then last month – during National Recycling Week – we got a rude shock. Coles and Woolworths announced that they were very sorry, but their Melbourne-based contractor, REDcycle, was having recycling “challenges” and they were “no longer able to offer our customers access to this service”. Their advice? Chuck it in the bin.

Woolworths and Coles suggested that the problem lay with the recycling industry, and that seemed to be vindicated last week when Chris Vedelago of the Sydney Morning Herald, who first exposed the scheme’s suspension, revealed that bags deposited at supermarkets have been left unprocessed, stored in warehouses, since at least 2018. 

But we should not rush to judgment over this. Everyone who buys products wrapped in plastic – that’s you, me and everyone we know – and those who supply them including supermarkets have a level of personal responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of soft plastics waste generated every year.

For years Liz Kasell, the Melbourne mum who founded REDcycle sitting at her kitchen table, has struggled to find a solution to soft plastics waste, starting with collection in local schools and going national via supermarket chains in 2019. Between then and last month the volume of plastic taken in by thousands of supermarket stores quadrupled.

Those years have been liberally sprinkled with hopeful announcements about recycled plastic products, official sanctions on landfill and a national recovery target of 70 per cent of plastics recovered (either recycled or composted) by 2025.

But government and industry investment in recycling schemes and technologies has not stopped a growing flood of discarded plastic, delivered to us by the same petrochemical revolution that gave us global warming.

Now we need the ingenuity that started the revolution to help get us out of this horror show. As an example: a week before the end of supermarket collection a new Melbourne startup, Samsara Eco, announced plans to recycle 20,000 tonnes of plastic a year from 2024 using leading-edge enzyme technology to “depolymerise” it – break it down into core molecules.

As always, economics is the key. REDcycle collapsed mainly because of a lack of investment in recycling. Notably absent are companies that you’d think have most to gain from solving a soft plastics waste problem – the ones that produce the plastics in the first place.

The environmental crisis gradually enveloping our world appears in countless large-scale forms involving climate, landscape, and the viability of species and ecosystems. A failed recycling scheme is vastly smaller in scale, but it brings the crisis closest to home. 

Keeping our discarded soft plastic aside and dropping it off at the supermarket every few weeks was a habit I was glad to have. A month after the service ended I still reflexively look for the plastics bag at the back door. The realisation that our bags must now go to the bin is one more blow to my sense of progress.

We’re all responsible for making recycling work. We buy the packaging along with the goods, and it’s our job to dispose of it “thoughtfully”, as they say on the waste bins. 

But us being thoughtful won’t make this mess go away. We need manufacturers, retailers and governments to start being thoughtful themselves, about something they always preferred to ignore. We need all of them to grasp the urgency of this and then to apply their not inconsiderable resources to getting it sorted.

Last week the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission weighed in by authorising a Soft Plastics Taskforce, led by the big supermarkets, to find solutions. Plastics recycling is an abnormal market. All the world’s nations have the problem and none will want competition from outside, so while recycling may use exportable technologies the product itself will be essentially for a domestic market.

One of the Cat in the Hat children’s stories by Dr Seuss (Theodore Geisel) encapsulates the soft plastics crisis. The Cat makes a mark in the family bathtub and, with parents due back any moment, conjures up an army of little cats in hats to clean up. But the spot goes from surface to surface, through all the letters of the alphabet, even colouring the snow outside. 

Like that spot, soft plastic has defied our best efforts to make it go away. Like the Cat we have to keep trying, and unlike all past efforts, this one must not stop until it succeeds.

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