How Australia’s Largest Soft Plastics Recycling Program Collapsed

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

Last week it was revealed that hundreds of millions of soft plastic items are being secretly stockpiled in warehouses across the country.

Australia’s largest soft plastics recycling program REDcycle has collapsed, and suddenly ice-cream wrappers and pasta packets now belong back in the rubbish bin.

But as a country should we really be blaming one entrepreneur who had a vision to do right by the planet and became a victim of her own success?

“This probably was going to happen in the end anyway because everyone’s becoming more environmentally conscious. Everyone knows about this system, everyone wants to do good by the planet and recycle,” said Michael Stapleton, who is completing a PhD on plastic recycling at the University of Wollongong.

As a waste fanatic himself, Michael told Junkee that REDcycle shouldn’t be the blame.

“It should be the infrastructure in Australia. Because we relied for so many years on sending our waste overseas and REDcycle’s whole philosophy is that it’s Australia’s waste, we need to deal with it.

They wanted to keep it in Australia and deal with it. So it’s just needing that infrastructure to catch up to the demand really.”

The Story Of REDcycle

This story starts with a single Mum at the dining room table who wanted to make change, Liz Kasell.

“She originally had no background in the recycling industry. She was just a mum who was like, I’m using a lot of plastic waste and surely there’s something I can do with this,” Michael said.

As a concept, Australians have embraced recycling. The only problem is that we generate more recyclables than the industry can deal with.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Michael Stapleton (@wastemanmick)

Australia generates more single-use plastics waste per capita than any other country in the world, and we use around 70 billion pieces of soft scrunchable plastics each year.

Enter REDcycle, which for the past 11 years has collected more than 5.4 billion pieces of plastic that will not end up in landfill, beaches or in our waterways.

REDcycle’s partnership with 2000 supermarkets across the country is what has made the recycling program so successful. That was before the business model outgrew itself.

But people probably didn’t know that soft plastic bins in Coles and Woolies were only a reality because of one person wanting to do good.

“REDcycle is just the entrepreneurial group and they are the middle people who connect the waste plastic to companies that can deal with waste plastic,” Michael explained.

Where Do Soft Plastics Go?

Those companies or manufacturing partners, convert soft plastics into everything from indoor and outdoor furniture, signages to asphalt additives for building roads and footpaths.

Back in June this year, there was a fire at the processing facility of REDcycle’s largest recycling partner, Close the Loop. Cracks were starting to show in REDcycle’s business model.

It was after this, Michael reckons that the business just got to a point where they just simply couldn’t take any more plastic waste because their warehouse is obviously too full.

According to a REDcycle spokesperson, three companies that normally accept the plastic for recycling have stopped.

“I think they said they had 350% increase just from the covid period. So they’ve got this issue where they’re getting a lot of supply but there’s no demand for the end product,” Michael told Junkee.

So What’s The Solution?

Well soft plastics belong in the red bin for the time being. And people are being encouraged to try to actively follow the real hierarchy of waste: avoid, reduce, reuse and then dispose.

REDcycle is calling for help to continue operations.

Meanwhile Federal Environment minister Tanya Plibersek has said that supermarkets need to step up.

But recycling advocates think that the government should be held responsible for why there was a gap in the market for recycling soft plastics to begin with.

“Once you’ve got the infrastructure, you are going to need a place for that end product and that’s going to be where governments have to step in.

I don’t know what the model would look like, but they really need to make plastic waste valuable to the community.”