'Not what was advertised': The supermarket plastic bag recycling program began to fail in 2018

‘Not what was advertised’: The supermarket plastic bag recycling program began to fail in 2018

“What happened was not what was advertised to the public.”

At the time, Coles and Woolworths were involved in nationwide collection programs at nearly 2000 stores that had created a massive inflow of plastic that REDcycle was committed to collecting and processing.

Emails show that REDcycle senior operations managers struggled to stock materials at interstate locations in 2019 because the company’s Victoria-based processing facility was unable to keep up.

In an email dated March 18, 2019, Ledwidge tells REDcycle: “We have until the end of next week to vacate the additional storage space that I have arranged… We now have about 50 pallets in stock and will be putting 10 more into storage today. So that’s 2 B-doubles [trucks] We have to move out, and our other yard is full with 40 pallets. By the end of the month we have to move a total of 4 plastic B-doubles.”

A REDcycle operations manager replies about 30 minutes later: “Unfortunately, due to Melbourne, we are not yet able to move bales… Is there an option to extend our lease by 6 months?”

Large amounts of plastic were reportedly stockpiled at several rented warehouses in Melbourne, Brisbane, Newcastle and Adelaide, and sources say an undisclosed amount remains.

The stockpiling briefly came to the attention of the New South Wales Environmental Protection Agency in July 2020, when a tip led the regulator to a suspected “unlawful waste facility” at a rented warehouse in Newcastle.

“On July 15, 2020 [the logistics company] informed the EPA that they were working with their contractor REDcycle to reduce the number of plastic bales on site and later confirmed that about 100 plastic bales were removed,” the EPA said in a statement.

There are also discrepancies between the volume of material claims collected by REDcycle and the volume its partners have been able to process.

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REDcycle, which reported that the amount of plastic donated at Coles and Woolworths has increased by 350 percent since 2019, collected about 7,000 tons of material per year.

According to the operators, the company’s former recycling partners – Close the Loop, Replas and Plastic Forests – together could process a maximum of 3200 tons per year.

“The numbers just don’t add up. There is a large discrepancy between the amounts reported by REDcycle and Coles and Woolies that have been recycled and the ability of the relatively small soft plastic recycling industry to actually recycle,” said an industry source, who asked not to be identified. because they were involved in the processing of REDcycle’s materials.

Close the Loop, REDcycle’s largest customer and the only bulk recycler of consumer soft plastics in the country, partnered with the company in 2018 but was killed by fire in June 2022. Operations are expected to resume in mid-2023.

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Replas, which has worked with REDcycle since the program’s inception in 2011, stopped accepting material in early November. Plastic Forest ended their partnership in February 2021, having joined in 2019.

In previous public statements, REDcycle has claimed that it only started “short-term” stockpiling of plastic after June 2022.

A REDcycle spokeswoman said “several unforeseen challenges, exacerbated by the pandemic,” meant three companies that normally accepted plastics for recycling stopped doing so.

“REDcycle had to take the undesirable but necessary step of temporarily holding inventory in warehouses,” according to a media release in early November.

The REDcycle program started more than a decade ago with a sample collection program at Coles retail locations.

How much plastic REDcycle has actually recycled in recent years remains unclear as the company has repeatedly refused to provide information about its operations.

On Wednesday, REDcycle declined to respond to questions from its legal representatives, Wilckens Roche Lawyers.

As part of the REDcycle program, users have been dropping off soft plastics at collection points in supermarkets across Australia.

Coles and Woolworths have claimed they were not aware of REDcycle being involved in any type of stockpiling until the end of October this year and strenuously deny knowledge of any long-term problems with the program.

But both chains have declined to say whether an audit of the country’s leading soft plastics recycling program has ever been conducted. Coles has been a REDcycle partner for more than a decade.

“The circumstances that led to REDcycle storing collected plastics and eventually suspending its program on November 9, 2022 are complex and multifaceted,” said a spokeswoman for Coles.

Coles Chief Operating Officer Matt Swindells previously said the amount of plastic held by REDcycle is considered “significant”. Coles has declined to elaborate.

A Woolworths representative said that long-term stocking issues at REDcycle’s chain had “never been raised” despite two-week meetings and on-site visits.

REDcycle is the name of the recycling program run by for-profit company RG Programs and Services Pty Ltd.

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