Open your kitchen cupboard and no doubt you’ll have food packaging galore made of soft plastics. Think bread bags, pasta packets and biscuit wrappings. But once you've used the product, what happens to the packaging?
On average, every Australian generates 59 kilograms of single-use plastic waste each year. Much of this plastic is hard to recycle so it often ends up in landfill.
Soft plastics from consumers are one of the most difficult materials to recycle. They are frequently contaminated with food and often made from different types of plastics that are not easily processed.
They can be recycled, but the system is complex.
Soft plastics in Australia
Soft plastics generally can’t be recycled through the yellow bin system at home, unlike other types of harder plastics.
Currently, you can only put soft plastics in the yellow bin if you live in some parts of New South Wales. And this only applies if you have signed up to a soft plastics recycling program. Or if there is a home collection program that takes soft plastics waste and other harder to recycle items to recycling centres.
The main processing pathway of soft plastics in Australia has been the REDcycle program.
Many Australians were collecting their soft plastics and dropping them off at their local Woolworths and Coles supermarkets, as part of the recycling program. REDcycle proved very popular, with five million post-consumer plastic items collected a day.
The rapid growth of soft plastics collection demonstrates the willingness of consumers to recycle soft plastics. Recycling these plastics also provides the opportunity to reuse this waste for other useful products. Plus, it prevents it from ending up in landfill or in our oceans.
However, the capacity of recycling partners to use the recovered soft plastic material to make other products is currently limited. And the industry has been unable to cope with the volumes being generated. As a result, REDcycle has had to suspend operations.
How were the soft plastics used?
Through REDcycle, the soft plastics were collected from stores and sorted. They were then used by manufacturing companies to be recycled into things like road surfaces and plastic fences.
For example, the company Close the Loop was using hundreds of tonnes of Coles and Woolworths-sourced plastic as an additive and binding agent for asphalt. But they experienced a fire which halted production. This significantly impacted use of the soft plastics, leading to the waste being stockpiled.
This means there is no adequate pathway to deal with collected soft plastics at the moment. However, REDcycle has stated all the stockpiled soft plastics it has collected will be processed when Close the Loop is back up-and-running in June 2023.
Is that a wrap on soft plastics recycling?
The ability of programs like REDcycle to operate successfully relies on the plastics recycling system across the supply chain. There needs to be demand for these recycled materials and the products they produce. Without this, the plastic will go to waste.
Although REDcycle is currently not operating, if you are in NSW, some councils offer the Curby soft plastics scheme. You can arrange to have soft plastics collected from your home in dedicated bags using their app.
There is also RecycleSmart, a home collection system that takes items to recycling centres. The services available will depend on where you live.
Other plastic waste solutions
Advanced recycling is recognised as an emerging technology that can accept soft plastics.
We have identified pathways for this technology to be adopted in Australia. This could help manage hard to recycle plastics and prevent them ending up in landfill.
Advanced recycling can process soft plastics into other plastic products. The process works by breaking down plastic waste into its chemical building blocks. A range of thermal or biological processes can then turn the building blocks back into plastics. These plastics are the same quality as the original product.
The outputs from the advanced recycling of soft plastics could be traded into conventional commodity markets. This means the products are not limited to specific recycling businesses, and instead could be used widely.
This is one solution to help address the plastic waste issue.
The future of plastic waste is in our hands
Plastic is a useful and convenient product. But we can change our relationship with throwaway culture to reduce plastic waste.
The issues around soft plastic recycling in Australia highlights the need to rethink how we make, use, recycle and dispose of plastics. That’s why we're on a mission to end plastic waste. We have a goal of an 80 per cent reduction in plastic waste entering the Australian environment by 2030.
We’re working with partners to generate solutions to turn plastic waste into a resource. It also includes revolutionising plastic packaging, such as bio-derived and compostable products. It includes waste innovations to improve recycling and data collection to understand how to better manage waste in the environment.
The government has also set a target to end plastic pollution by 2040. We can also make a choice to avoid plastic use, which is the most effective way to reduce plastic waste.