RED Group goes hard on soft plastics

Waste Management Review speaks to RED Group’s Rebecca Gleghorn about the success of its soft plastics recycling program.

The ABC’s War on Waste, RED Group and Planet Ark have popularised the “scrunch test” – a way of educating consumers on the need to avoid placing soft plastics in the kerbside recycling system.

Australians use approximately 300,000 tonnes of flexible plastics in Australia, according to the 2015-16 National Recycling and Recovery Survey. However, the survey showed in that year just over one sixth of this was collected and recycled.

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Due to the lack of processing capabilities, only a few Australian councils are collecting flexible plastics. One well-known solution to this ongoing challenge is the REDcycle recycling program – available to consumers at participating supermarkets across the country, including all Coles and Woolworths stores nationwide. Thanks to a partnership with Australian manufacturer of recycled products Replas, the Melbourne-based recycling organisation has been able to collect each week on average more than three million pieces of soft plastics, including bags and packaging.

Rebecca Gleghorn, Marketing and Communications Manager of RED Group, says the program began in 2011.

“Our Director, Elizabeth Kasell, was a concerned mum who couldn’t understand why she couldn’t recycle her soft plastics,” Rebecca explains.

“So after investigating her options, she started a soft plastics scheme at her child’s school. With that success, the program was trialled in more schools before the supermarkets were approached.”

The start-up venture received partial funding from Sustainability Victoria and set its sights on operating in Coles and Woolworths stores, initially in NSW and Victoria only.

“As the success of the program became more evident and supermarkets redefined their sustainability initiatives, it was rolled out to all of their respective stores nationwide,” she says.

Rebecca says the main challenges were keeping up with the demand to increase the number of collection points, as consumers started to understand their personal responsibility when it comes to protecting the environment.

“Once people are made aware that soft plastics recycling is possible and relatively easy to do and they can see the results through products made by Replas, they have more faith in the process,” Rebecca says.

Waste Management Review speaks to RED Group’s Rebecca Gleghorn about the success of its soft plastics recycling program.
Consumers can drop off their soft plastics at the major supermarkets.

She says that word of mouth, in-house promotion at Coles and Woolworths and social media platforms and REDcycle media articles helped encourage greater recovery of the materials.

“The main message is that people can trust that REDcycle does indeed recover the materials they drop off, and we do indeed recycle it – nothing we collect goes offshore,” she says.

The process begins by having consumers drop off the materials at Coles and Woolworths. The bins are then emptied by supermarket staff and the contents taken to a designated collection point. From there, the materials are recovered by RED Group and make their way to a depot in each capital city. The materials are then returned for sorting and compacting to REDcycle’s depot in Melbourne. Once sorted and baled, they are shipped to either Replas or Close the Loop which mixes the soft plastics in with recycled toner and turns it into road base.

Rebecca says that much of the challenges with soft plastics is consistent messaging, including getting more people to properly understand what constitutes them and what can or cannot be accepted. The REDcycle website states what can be received by its programs, in addition to simple instructions online about how the program works.

The latest data on the program shows that 480 tonnes or 120 million pieces of plastic were diverted from landfill in 2017. That’s an increase of 291 tonnes when compared to 2013 data. “We are now collecting four times the volume each week since we first started.”

Of course, the REDcycle program is one solution of many required to boost the recovery of soft plastics and Rebecca hopes that more councils will make soft plastics recycling part of their standard roadside collections.

“Presently, there are not many soft plastics recycling companies like Replas. However as the demand increases, perhaps more recycling businesses will emerge,” Rebecca says.

This article appeared in the September issue of Waste Management Review.