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Coles, Woolworths recycling scheme collapses after secret stockpiles revealed

Australia’s largest plastic bag recycling program has collapsed amid revelations hundreds of millions of bags and other soft plastic items dropped off by customers at Coles and Woolworths are being secretly stockpiled in warehouses and not recycled.

Instead of being taken to companies that use the plastic to make other items, REDcycle has been transporting the plastic to warehouses for long-term storage in what some experts consider a potential environmental and fire safety risk.

Lucinda Moje-O’Brien routinely recycles her plastic bags at REDcycle supermarket collection points.
Lucinda Moje-O’Brien routinely recycles her plastic bags at REDcycle supermarket collection points.CREDIT:JASON SOUTH

The Melbourne-based company, which claims to collect up to 5 million plastic items a day from public drop-off points at nearly 2000 supermarkets across the country, did not publicly announce the suspension of the recycling component of its program, and has for months continued collecting large volumes of soft plastics including shopping bags, pet food bags, ice cream wrappers, bubble wrap and frozen food packaging.

The plastics collected are usually sent to other companies, where they are used as ingredients in concrete, asphalt, street furniture, bollards and shopping trolleys.

On Tuesday evening, after questions from this masthead, REDcycle announced it would suspend its collection program from Wednesday due to “untenable pressure” on its business model.

Woolworths apologised to customers on Tuesday. Coles declined to comment about when it became aware REDcycle was collecting plastic from its supermarkets that were not being recycled.

A spokeswoman for REDcycle said “several unforeseen challenges, exacerbated by the pandemic” meant that three companies that normally accepted the plastic for recycling were no longer doing so.

The processing problems are expected to continue until mid-2023, which could mean more than 1 billion plastic items – or thousands of tonnes – are stockpiled in warehouses. REDcycle would not reveal how much plastic is currently stockpiled in its facilities.

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