The road ahead for soft plastics recycling

The intense media scrutiny surrounding the pausing of the REDcycle collection scheme has shone a spotlight on a system in urgent need of overhaul and served as a catalyst for high level discussions with stakeholders across the value chain. PKN caught up with APCO CEO Chris Foley for an update.

In the last two weeks, response to PKN’s coverage of the REDcycle saga has highlighted the importance of open dialogue in the plastics packaging industry, and importantly, dialogue that will lead to economically viable, actionable plans – and fast.

Leading many of the discussions is the Australian Packaging Covenant Organization (APCO). From my conversation with new APCO CEO Chris Foley, it’s clear that APCO has moved swiftly to engage with government, regulators, and the broader industry, including packaging manufacturers and end-users (brand owners).

“Industry needs to come together to reinstate a scheme that has integrity and long-term economic viability,” Foley told PKN. “This needs to happen quickly to rebuild community trust in on-pack ‘return to store’ claims and the recycling system at large.”

One of the first steps APCO took following the REDcycle announcement to temporarily suspend soft plastic packaging collections was to commence an independent review of the market for soft plastic packaging collected by REDcycle, along with processing capacity currently available, committed but not yet commissioned, and planned .

Foley says these findings will be used to develop pathways forward to reactivate collections and recycling. Key stakeholders across the system are being interviewed as part of the process, and the review will be completed next week.

Another important step has been engaging with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). APCO has briefed the regulator on the situation, and established lines of communication to support open and timely dialogue and feedback.

Items discussed include the ACCC’s imperative to protect consumers from greenwashing and misleading and deceptive claims from labeling, along with environmental, economic, and operational impacts for brand owners if they are required to remove or change on-pack messaging at short notice.

For brand owners whose flexible packaging carries the Australian Recycling Label indicating that the pack can be returned to the store, this is a crucial point.

Foley reiterates the need for speed: “These challenges will be mitigated through the quick recommencement of collection services and keeping the public informed of developments.”

Foley says that Tanya Plibersek, Minister for the Environment and Water, is supportive of an industry-led dialogue, pending ACCC’s authorization of supermarkets convening to discuss short term solutions.

“We expect there to be a broader industry taskforce to work on medium to long term soft plastics solutions,” he said.

Following ACCC authorization, Foley says APCO will support the supermarkets’ dialogue to develop a pathway forward to reinstate soft plastic collection solutions as soon as possible and consider the economics, pricing and governance model needed to support soft plastic recovery and recycling moving forward.

“Broader industry engagement will occur as required to support this,” he said.

Foley says that the proposed plan resulting from these discussions will be submitted to the ACCC for review and endorsement. He adds that to counter any time delay in restarting the return to store collection and recycling of plastics, the submission to the ACCC will need to include a request for the Commission to provide industry with a period of grace from claims of misleading or deceptive labeling for existing packaging. Once endorsed, the agreed program will be activated and can be communicated to the community.

INDUSTRY ACTIONS

While these plans are underway, APCO is advising its members to take proactive steps as well.

It recommends that brand owners develop and activate communication plans to ensure their customers understand that the industry is working on a solution, will keep them updated, and let them know when a recycling solution is available.
In the meantime, consumers need to know that soft plastic packaging should be disposed of in the waste bin until advised otherwise.

APCO says supermarkets can help the process by continuing to communicate to the public through prominent signage in-store and at collection points that soft plastic packaging is not being collected in store for recycling until advised otherwise.

And the most vital recommendation of all, is that all brand owners and retailers should consider how they can support the recycling economy. Without demand for post-consumer recycled content in products and packaging, there can be no circular economy for plastic packaging.

ONGOING SUPPORT FOR REDCYCLE

There’s little doubt that the mass media coverage has been skewed to point the finger at REDcycle. Once again, it’s worth pointing out that REDcycle is taking the fall for a wider systemic failure.

Foley is outspoken in his support of the scheme. He said, “REDcycle were early innovators and pioneers in the soft plastic collection and recycling space and the scheme was clearly born out of honorable intentions. Galvanizing people across the country, the supermarkets and brand owners to start taking action on soft plastics is no mean feat and REDcycle deserves praise for highlighting this issue and working to develop a solution.

“Obviously, as REDcycle has gotten bigger and bigger it has unfortunately encountered a number of challenges. Sadly, its great success – the sheer amount of soft plastic collected – has become a contributor to its current troubles,” he said.

“While of course it’s disappointing to see a large-scale return and collection scheme paused, we are confident that out of this will come a more sustainable, resilient soft plastics returns program, leveraging these important learnings. APCO is taking a leading role, working across the packaging value chain and bringing the industry together to reinstate a scheme that has integrity, strong governance and long-term viability.”

PKN will continue to keep readers updated on developments.

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