Few events in waste have captured our attention in recent months like the disruption in REDcycle soft plastic collections. What the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and others have dubbed a ‘collapse’ has been also variously referred to as a ‘crisis’, ‘debacle’, ‘shock’ and a ‘botched plastic bag recycling program’.
The subsequent violation of reporting and stockpiling regulations aside, such myopic interpretations of what has effectively been an optimistic – and arguably necessary – gamble on the part of REDcycle that sufficient end market demand would develop over time if they continued to collect soft plastics and kept it out of landfill long enough. In this sense, REDcycle has been ahead of its time, taking on the market-making risk while running a scheme that worked so well – at least on the surface – that it has become a much-loved cultural institution.
The size of the microscope REDcycle is under now belies the reality that the beleaguered initiative was always the odds-against underdog subbing in to do what plastic packaging producers, importers, and retailers – with or without a government mandate – should do as part of a responsible business model: taking responsibility for ones products and packaging and ensuring the cost of doing business is not externalised onto the environment, communities or government.
Putting into perspective the scale of our disproportionate distraction: REDcycle, a small social enterprise, collected only 7,000 tonnes of soft plastics per year, or about 3 per cent of the roughly 250,000 tonnes used in Australia annually. Soft plastics constitute about 10 per cent of our plastic waste, of which only 13 per cent is processed for recycling and, presumably but not necessarily, recycled into products. This means that the volume of soft plastics at large represents just under 0.01 per cent of Australia’s 75.8 million tonnes per annum of waste. Of this, there has been market demand for only a small fraction of REDcycle’s collected volumes, leading to warehouses of stockpiled plastics (which may still find a future market). Flipping the maths, we’re many thousands of times more worried than we need to be – and we’re looking in the wrong direction.
This is not to diminish the extraordinary achievement of REDcycle and its partners in setting up a popular drop-off, logistics, and market-making opportunity for highly-contaminated, hard-to-recycle, mixed-polymer plastics that no one else wants. Rather, it is to illustrate the absurdity of bemoaning one very small piece of a very large puzzle whose true crisis stems from the supply chain, politics, and a tradition of prioritising short-term profit over long-term distributed benefits. A classic case of polishing the Porsche while the elephant in the room ravages the house behind us, or painting a collapsing hovel in glittering gold.
But a crisis, real or perceived, is a terrible thing to waste, so let’s embrace it as a trigger for refocusing our attention from the comforting bastion of resource recovery to the higher-order principles of a circular economy, the true ESG opportunities of which are just beginning to emerge.
Two heartening trends to emerge from the somewhat histrionic media response and subsequent community outcry have been an underlying devotion for soft plastic drop-off akin to that of a cultural institution, and that the rug of soft plastic complaisance has been pulled out from under us, leaving us squinting into the post-BAU glory of possibilities for a top-down strategically coordinated whole-of-value-chain approach. This has started to clear the way for the bigger-picture thinking we desperately need to not just stop the bleeding but to heal the wound.
With the Minister’s Priority List 2022-23 – which identifies a range of problematic and unnecessary plastics – hot off the press; the community up in arms about sending plastics to landfill; and more industry players than ever pursuing circular economy strategies linked to actionable plans and ESG reporting, now is the time to strike.
The best way to feed the elephant without giving up the Porsche – that is, maximising material efficiency while minimising costs, environmental impact, and unnecessary materials – is to: phase-in mandatory product and packaging design standards to accommodate circular economy principles.
Firstly, design products in a way that minimises the need for packaging. And what packaging is required, use single-material formats that can be more easily recovered through municipal and commercial kerbside recycling as this is where most of it will end up. A good example of this is Dyson, which creatively uses simple recycled cardboard in place of polystyrene to protect the product during shipment, which is one of the easiest materials to recover through kerbside.
If plastic cannot be avoided (and, depending on composition and format, can even be a more sustainable option), allow only higher-value transparent single-polymer formats with a clear processing and end market pathway, such as PET, RPET, PP, HDPE, and (in limited formats) LDPE. Composite materials – such as multiple-polymer plastics; coffee cups, which are cardboard lined on the inside with plastic or polylactic acid (PLA) based ‘bioplastic’; aseptic containers like Tetrapak, which are liquid paperboard lined on the inside with thin layers of aluminium and plastic; and that pesky Apple packaging, with cardboard enveloped tightly by plastic – should be regulated out as they are so logistically, technologically and energy-intensively difficult to recycle, and end markets for recovered materials are so poor, that landfill is the only ‘viable’ destination.
Enforcing higher design standards for Australian and international manufacturers and brand owners will shift some of the cost of doing business from the Australian community and local governments back to businesses, and may even sharpen the teeth of co-regulatory schemes such as the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO).
Better design standards in place, phase out all single-use plastics and bioplastics (including all oxo-degradable, biodegradable, compostable light and heavy gauge carry and barrier bags and polystyrene) to be replaced by reusable alternatives. Bring your own, borrow one through Returnr or Green Caffeen, etc, or eat in. No exceptions apart from accessibility-related for impaired individuals. Absolutely must provide a carry bag? 5-10¢ per bag is negligible in relatively affluent societies. Charge $1/bag. This would also further support an already hobbled recycling system.
For packaging that cannot be avoided (i.e. for the purpose of preserving food where there is no other alternative), let’s lend our full support to the development of the National Packaging Recycling Scheme (NPRS), a packaging stewardship scheme being developed by the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) in collaboration with industry members through an extended product responsibility (EPR) scheme, where trials are underway in metro areas to collect soft plastics from Australian homes through kerbside recycling services. This can be done in conjunction with the REDcycle program. The plastics are then taken to an advanced recycling facility such as that of Licella or Qenos, where they are turned back into oil to produce more plastic packaging. Cracking the nut of kerbside soft plastics collection would enable aggregation of volumes quanta higher than in-store drop-off and enable brands to dramatically increase recycled content in packaging. The opportunity is ripe for a small levy to be attached to the sale of unavoidable soft plastics to fund collection and recycling until a future economy of scale achieves a self-sustaining pull market.
Product stewardship schemes often leverage a levy-benefit structure, where a small unit- or volume-based levy is paid at the point of sale by a producer and/or consumer to cover the cost of product logistics and processing, and is then returned as a refund or other distributed benefits. Despite their success, Australia still has only one mandatory scheme; the others are voluntary or co-regulatory, which generally means they are optional, vulnerable to loopholes, their success is limited by participation, and our economy is losing a valuable, time-critical opportunity to slow the haemorrhaging of resources embodied carbon emissions.
But why stop at packaging? For other major categories of goods – from consumer goods to building materials, fridges to fit-outs – design products to last and provide access to affordable repair to extend product life as long as possible (including right to repair legislation), design for disassembly and repair, and mandate collection logistics and resource recovery for end-of-life materials. This is where the most significant economic and environmental gains will be made.
Implementing phase-outs and stewardship schemes is almost always an arduous journey through the thicket of vested interests, political capital, stakeholder alignment, community support, election cycles and timing. But what often eludes consistent quantification – and, sadly, incorporation into business models – are the true social, economic and environmental costs and benefits of losing resources and fugitive carbon emissions both upstream and downstream from a company’s main operations (think scope 3 materials and carbon emissions). If, for example, the business case for a government-run fridge buyback scheme were to consider the social and carbon benefits associated with extending fridge life through repairability and redistribution to disaster-affected communities and social programs, political and community support might build themselves. Some products will always post a genuine challenge; but for many, we simply need to take a longer, more comprehensive view of the distributed benefits, including the disastrous costs of not taking any action at all.
Slow they may seem to the impatient among us, government and corporate sustainability strategies are moving quickly to include circular economy principles that cost-effectively increase material efficiency and social equality while reducing embodied carbon emissions and regenerating ecosystems and biodiversity. They are changing course not only because their stakeholders demand it and it gives us a fighting chance to survive on Planet A, but also to eliminate inefficiencies, demonstrate thought leadership, increase brand loyalty, attract investment, and scale the approach across more products and services.
So whether you’re for making money, protecting the environment, providing equal opportunity, or all of the above, why wait for the next crisis to make a better world?
This is an updated version of an article about the REDcycle scheme that appeared in the Feb/March issue of Inside Waste magazine