The collapse of REDcycle is yet another proof that plastic recycling is a broken system

This week the federal government joined an international agreement to recycle or reuse 100% of plastic waste by 2040, ending plastic pollution. But great obstacles stand in the way.

The most recent is the collapse of Australia’s largest soft plastic recycling programme, REDcycle. The scheme was suspended after it was revealed that soft plastic items collected at Woolworths and Coles had been hoarding for months in warehouses and not recycled.

The abrupt termination of the soft plastic recycling program has left many consumers deeply disappointed, and the sense of betrayal is understandable. Recycling, with its familiar “chasing arrows” symbol, has been touted by the plastics industry for years as the answer to the problem of single-use plastics.

But recycling is not a silver bullet. Most single-use plastics produced worldwide since the 1970s have ended up in landfills and the natural environment. Plastic is also found in the food we eat and at the bottom of the deepest oceans.

The recent collapse of the soft plastic recycling system is further proof that plastic recycling is a broken system. Australia cannot meet its new target if the focus is only on collection, recycling and disposal. Systemic change is urgently needed.

Recycling is a market

Australia has joined the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, a group of more than 30 countries co-led by Norway and Rwanda, which also includes the UK, Canada and France.

It aims to provide a global treaty that bans plastic pollution by establishing global rules and obligations for the entire life cycle of plastics. This includes setting standards to reduce plastic production, consumption and waste. It would also enable a circular economy, where plastic is reduced, reused or recycled.

The demise of REDcycle has left many consumers deeply disappointed.(ABC News: Simon Winter)

The idea behind recycling is simple. By reworking items into new products, we can conserve natural resources and reduce pollution.

Unfortunately, the recycling process is much more complex and intertwined in the economic system. Recycling is a commodity market. Who buys what is usually determined by the quality of the plastic.

In the center of the chasing arrow symbol is a number. If it is one or two, it has a high value and will most likely be sold on the commodity market and recycled. Numbers three through seven indicate mixed plastics, such as soft plastics, which are considered low-value.

Unfortunately, it often costs more to recycle most plastics than it does to throw them away. Until 2018, low-value plastics were exported to China. Decades of dependence on global waste trade has prevented many countries, including Australia, from developing advanced domestic recycling infrastructure.

What are the biggest problems?

One of the biggest problems with plastic recycling is the huge diversity of plastics that end up in the waste stream: films, foams, sachets, numerous varieties of flexible plastics, and various additives that further alter the properties of the plastic.

Most plastics can only be recycled in a pure and consistent form and only a limited number of times. Furthermore, municipal plastic waste streams are very difficult to separate.

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