A RED hot go – 27/02/23
When REDCycle was launched, there was no guidebook or instructions on “how to create a recovery system for a challenging waste stream with a negative value”.
Over a decade ago, household soft plastic product packaging was the frustrating, ubiquitous material ending up in my weekly waste bin that I could reduce but not avoid altogether. And there were always questions. Can I bring my frozen peas home in my pocket? I wasn’t an environmental scientist, but it didn’t take one to assume that the bread bags and frozen veg bags I couldn’t avoid would behave in landfill exactly the same way as the single use plastic bag that I could.
I started looking for options to not only collect and divert this material from landfill, but to find new and better ways to create downstream demand for recycled products.
As a mum to a young son, conscious of what we would leave his generation, doing nothing was unacceptable. So off we went, designing, building, and launching the REDCycle Program, a recovery initiative for post-consumer soft plastic.
While its purpose was simple – reducing the amount of soft plastic packaging going to landfill – the execution was always going to be complex.
John F Kennedy once said, ‘things do not happen, they are made to happen’. And so it was, a passionate group of women coming together and tackling something that was adding over 300,000 tonnes of plastic to landfill each year.
Some of Australia’s most-loved brands got on board. REDCycle was designed as a stewardship model where manufacturers, retailers and consumers shared responsibility in creating a sustainable future. The response from the Australian community was overwhelming, and their commitment to the cause was both humbling and motivating.
Large scale behaviour change of this kind, that empowered and enabled Australians to become such passionate advocates for diverting their soft plastics from landfill is incredibly rare. It became a movement, a force of good, a community driven desire for change. And, to so many in the industry, a wakeup call for a better system that they wholly and willingly supported.
Like many things though, the pandemic came along and caused a significant strain for the REDCycle system. With online shopping booming, plastic wrapping and consumer participation soared with collection volumes increasing more than 350 per cent since 2019.
Australians began returning an eye watering 5 million pieces of soft plastic every day.
But we persevered, and partnered with several Australian processors and manufacturers to convert soft plastic into new products – street furniture, bins, shopping trolleys, bollards, concrete aggregate for construction and asphalt additives for roads.
Unforeseen challenges, exacerbated by the pandemic, soon meant that REDCycle’s recycling partners were unable to accept and process the rapidly increasing volume of soft plastics due to lack of immediate access to infrastructure, inadequate processing capacity, and most importantly reduced demand for recycled products.
There was no 350 per cent increase in demand for recycled products to match the supply, in fact, the opposite occurred thanks to market downturns. Then in June 2022, our largest volume offtake partner had a significant fire, resulting in their Tonerplas facility closing for reconstruction for 12 months.
This combination of factors put untenable pressure on the REDcycle business and system, and consequently, REDcycle regrettably announced the pause of the collection program in November 2022. This incredibly difficult decision came after months of diligent and dedicated work discovering solutions, to build a better and more resilient and robust system, working with every partner to restore and strengthen this vital pipeline, and to not let down the community whose passion and dedication we’d harnessed, and which now inspired us.
Australia’s circular economy is not a perfect diagram on a presentation slide.
It is a living, dynamic, interconnected system, evolving and adjusting, only ever as strong as its weakest link. It requires significant care and ongoing investment. The REDcycle part of the chain was thriving with growing community engagement, meaning greater volumes of soft plastic were diverted from landfill and retained in the circular economy. The downstream links of the chain were unable to keep up. Because this is a maturing system, it rarely, if ever, operates in perfect harmony. To expect this is possible, to maintain this balance at all times, is not only idealistic, but also does a serious disservice to a system that is not failing, but evolving.
Since the program pause, we’ve had negotiations with governments, regulators, potential partners, leading manufacturers who all share our vision and recognise the power of the community movement and critical recovery pipeline REDcycle has created. We understand people’s disappointment and frustration. But we are uplifted and strengthened by the overwhelming support from community, industry, and partners.
REDcycle helped revolutionise how Australians consider plastics and recycling, and with it, created a movement. This legacy and opportunity now need to be grasped with both hands. The price of not doing so is too high.
We welcome the support and collaboration by Woolworths and Coles announced in recent days. We similarly welcome Minister Plibersek’s foray into the space and the obvious passion she brings to the cause. We are heartened by the new focus brought about by REDcycle’s challenges. We ask that as this focus is transitioned to actionable steps, that not only the largest players are engaged, but the pioneers and innovators like REDcycle, Curbcycle, APR, SaveBoard have a seat at the table. Not out of entitlement, but because the experience is rich, there is much work to be done and we know how to roll up our sleeves.
Our time on this planet is small, but our impact on it will be much greater. What the future holds for REDcycle remains to be seen, but I know my team and I will always be dedicated to the cause, one that sees our waste become a resource and helps create a better environment for our children.
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