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Soft Plastics Recycling Select Committee Speech

17 May 2023

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (17:05): I rise to speak in favour of this motion. The Greens, of course, are supportive of the establishment of this committee. In doing so, I want to acknowledge the leadership of all sides of politics in terms of trying to tackle and reduce waste. It would be remiss of me, I think, if I did not acknowledge the leadership of the Leader of the Opposition in this regard during his time as environment minister, when he championed legislation that led the country in terms of reducing single-use plastics. That was a really important innovation, so I acknowledge his leadership in that regard and also the leadership of the Labor Party, and more recently the support the government has provided to a Greens bill to allow for BYO containers to be brought into food establishments to reduce waste.

There is lots of work that is being done but there is always space to do more, and it is in that spirit that the Greens welcome this committee, particularly when one considers the problems that have been plaguing the use of soft plastics. Avoiding, reducing, re-using and recycling waste is integral to effective waste management and to achieving zero waste in our state. Waste, including soft plastics, should be treated as a resource and re-used to create new products in a way that achieves the maximum social, economic and environmental benefit.

A circular economy, as we all know, leads to new industries and to new investment. REDcycle was a program that was first established to divert plastic bags and other soft plastics from landfill, turning them into resources used to manufacture new products. According to Clean Up Australia, Australians throw away about 7,150 recyclable bags a minute, or 429,000 per hour—429,000 per hour. This figure does not include the countless bread bags, frozen vegetable bags, pasta bags, biscuit packets and sachets that consumers bring home from the supermarket every single time they shop.

Plastic bags and packaging cannot be collected by most local councils as part of their kerbside pickup; instead, they typically end up in landfill or as litter, and we know that that harms our wildlife and our environment. The REDcycle program was a voluntary, industry-led initiative and a true product stewardship model where everybody involved in the cycle of a product's packaging, including the manufacturers, the retailers and the consumers, chose to share responsibility for the best end-of-life outcome.

Consumers would collect all of the soft plastics that cannot be recycled at home and drop them into the REDcycle program drop-off bins at participating supermarkets. The collected plastic was then returned to RED Group's facility for initial processing and then delivered to Australian manufacturer Replas where they underwent transformation. The resulting recycled plastic products were then turned into items such as fitness circuits, sturdy outdoor furniture, bollards and other products. These products were extremely robust, as well as water and termite resistant, and not susceptible to cracking, splintering or rotting, and they did not even require painting, so a very effective way to use that waste.

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation estimates that less than 5 per cent of consumer soft plastic was collected by the REDcycle program. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic heralded a boom in online shopping which, in turn, resulted in soft plastic collection volumes increasing by more than 350 per cent since 2019—350 per cent since 2019. This, coupled with a reduced demand for recycled products, led to stockpiling of collected soft plastics, forcing REDcycle to pause their program in November 2022. No longer able to pay the storage fees, REDcycle was declared insolvent, and that was a really disappointing outcome.

Since then, the Soft Plastics Taskforce has been established, and the Greens have very much welcomed this development. The task force is made up of the major supermarket retailers Aldi, Coles and Woolworths and has released the Roadmap to Restart, outlining the steps needed to launch a new supermarket soft plastic collection scheme in Australia. However, several challenges do remain, confronting those seeking to relaunch a scheme. These include limited access to domestic soft plastic recycling that can manage the soft plastics that are deposited by the public in supermarket collection bins and an inability to recycle the volume of household soft plastics collected in a supermarket program using domestic infrastructure.

It is paramount for our community and our planet that we are able to deal with these challenges. To ensure the viability of soft plastics recycling schemes, our state needs to both increase its capacity to recycle soft plastics at scale and ensure the market for the end product is either equal to or greater than the amount of soft plastics being collected for recycling.

According to the Soft Plastics Taskforce's current plan, an initial in-store collection pilot is anticipated to launch in select stores in late 2023, provided that REDcycle's existing soft plastic stockpiles can be cleared. The new program would then be gradually rolled out nationwide next year. At the same time, I understand the Australian Food and Grocery Council is developing the National Plastics Recycling Scheme to take hard-to-recycle soft plastic packaging out of waste streams and give it a new life, making it easier for people to recycle soft plastics at home.

Restoring public trust in soft plastic recycling schemes is vitally important. This place has a responsibility to the community and to future generations to not only support but ensure that these schemes are successful. The proposed select committee will have an important role to play in investigating solutions that will ensure the viability and functionality of these schemes. The Greens are pleased to support the committee, and we look forward to seeing how this matter progresses.