In what has been described as a “major blow” to consumer confidence, the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has issued draft notices to supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles to clean up soft plastics stockpiled through the REDcycle soft plastic recycling program.

Following an announcement by the NSW EPA in February 2023, it was revealed that 5200 tonnes of soft plastic stockpiled across 15 sites in NSW will need to be diverted to landfill “to protect our communities and environment,”

CEO of the NSW EPA Tony Chappel said “these materials need to be removed to reduce the risk of a fire,”

In November 2022 REDcycle announced that it will no longer be accepting soft plastics at receptacles located in Woolworths and Coles supermarkets across the country.

In a media release announcing the program will be “temporarily paused”, a REDcycle spokesperson said “the REDcycle team took the unwanted but necessary decision to hold the material in storage in the short term,” going on to say that “holding soft plastics in stock is not a perfect solution,”

REDcycle packaging labelling. Supplied.

Mr Chappel said “thousands of customers diligently collected soft plastics and dropped them into their local supermarket’s collection bin because they trusted their waste would be diverted from landfill and recycled,”

In December 2022 the Victorian EPA charged RG Programs and Services Pty Ltd, the operators of REDcycle with offences under the Victorian Environment Protection Act, alleging that the company failed to disclose full information about sites storing soft plastics.

In an update in early February the Victorian EPA announced a further four soft plastics storage facilities, bringing the confirmed number of storage facilities in Victoria to fourteen.

Loss of consumer confidence

So what now for Australian consumers who so diligently collected and returned their soft plastics? Well this is a great question and one that it is too early to answer. However, what we can predict is significant damage to the ‘plastic free’ movement.

Australian consumers were already showing signs of becoming weary to the calls to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic. In a time of rising costs of living, financial pressure, and increasing day to day burdens, the environment is the furthest thing from the mind of most consumers.

There is no doubt that after years of believing that they are doing the right thing by the environment, consumers will be hesitant to hear new solutions. Why will the new solutions be any different?

Consumer confidence will dip, and with good reason. But this is not the time to give up. There is so much to celebrate in the environment sector at the moment. The stories of hope and good news are rolling in each day. But these stories need to be told. The plastic pollution narrative needs to shift away from the extent of the problem, to become one of showcasing achievements and forward momentum.

Australia has a target that by 2025 seventy per cent of plastic packaging will be recycle or composted, 100 per cent of packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable, and fifty per cent of material used in packaging is to be derived from recycled materials.

These are ambitious targets given the standing start, and setbacks already seen. But with innovation, smart minds and legitimate commitment across all industry sectors, Australia can achieve these goals.

So although we can all be disappointed at the outcome of the REDcycle case, we should look to the future with confidence and a desire to make change for the better. Each of us has the ability to make change, starting today.