- Soft plastics dropped off at Coles and Woolworths for recycling have been sitting in storage since 2018.
- A former contractor with recycling operator REDcycle says huge volumes of soft plastics have been stored in warehouses around the country.
- REDcycle was collecting more than 5 million pieces of soft plastic a day by the time the program was suspended in November.
Plastic bags dropped off at Coles and Woolworths for recycling have been sitting in storage for at least four years, despite claims by the high-profile recycling company that it only recently ran into trouble.
A former contractor for REDcycle has confirmed the recycling operator has been stockpiling huge volumes of soft plastic items in warehouses around the country since 2018.
Too much plastic.Credit:Jason South
Customers had been told that soft plastic items like bags, ice cream wrappers and bubble wrap were being recycled en masse into useful products such as shopping trolleys, traffic bollards, gardening kits, and asphalt and concrete additives.
REDcycle was collecting more than 5 million pieces of soft plastic a day by the time the program was suspended in early November 2022 after The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald revealed the business lost its capability to recycle in June but did not inform the public.
But the further information calls into question widely publicised claims by REDcycle that it has ensured more than 5.4 billion plastic items have been recycled and would “never end up in landfill, on our beaches, or in our waterways”.
Hayden Ledwidge, owner of NSW-based NSC Logistics, was a major REDcycle contractor from 2013 to 2020, until the business relationship broke down amid a contractual dispute.
“In 2018 and 2019 was when we started putting it into storage. By this time, I was looking after all capital cities except Melbourne and was asked to find warehousing for the plastic. The volume increased very dramatically. We started sending it to Melbourne first, then that place filled up, and we had to find other warehouses,” Ledwidge said.
“The story we were all told was we can’t send it for recycling so, we’ve got to bale it ourselves, warehouse it and then in six months’ time it’ll be recycled. Then that six months became 12 months et cetera.
“What was happening was not what was being advertised to the general public.”
By this time, Coles and Woolworths were involved in nationwide collection programs across nearly 2000 stores that had caused a massive influx in the amount of plastic REDcycle had committed to collect and process.
Emails show senior REDcycle operations managers were scrambling in 2019 to keep materials at interstate locations because the company’s Victoria-based processing operation was unable to keep up.
In one email, dated March 18, 2019, Ledwidge tells REDcycle: “We have until the end of next week to be out of the extra storage I arranged … We have about 50 pallets in storage now and are about to put 10 more in today. So that’s 2 b-doubles [trucks] we need to move out, plus our other yard is full with 40 pallets. By the end of the month we’ll have a total of 4 b-doubles of plastic we need to move.”
A REDcycle operations manager responds about 30 minutes later: “Unfortunately we are not in a position to move bales yet due to Melbourne … Is there an opportunity to extend our lease for 6 months?”
Large amounts of plastic were allegedly stockpiled at multiple rented warehouses in Melbourne, Brisbane, Newcastle and Adelaide and an unknown volume remains, according to sources.
The stockpiling briefly came to the attention of the Environment Protection Authority in New South Wales in July 2020 when a tip-off led the regulator to what it suspected was an “unlawful waste facility” in a rented warehouse in Newcastle.
“On 15 July 2020, [the logistics company] advised the EPA they would work with their contractor REDcycle to reduce the number of plastic bales on site and later confirmed about 100 plastic bales were removed,” the EPA said in a statement.
There are also discrepancies between the volume of material REDcycle claims it collected and how much its partners have been capable of processing.
REDcycle, which reported there had been a 350 per cent increase in the amount of plastic donated at Coles and Woolworths since 2019, collected about 7000 tonnes of material a year.
The business’ former recycling partners – Close the Loop, Replas and Plastic Forests – were collectively able to process a maximum of 3200 tonnes per year, according to the operators’ own figures.
“The numbers just don’t add up. There’s a huge mismatch between the amounts REDcycle and Coles and Woolies have said has been recycled and the capability of the relatively small soft plastics recycling industry to actually recycle,” said an industry source, who requested anonymity because they have been involved in processing REDcycle’s materials.
Close the Loop, REDcycle’s largest customer and the only mass recycler of consumer-sourced soft plastics in the country, partnered with the company in 2018 but was shut down by a fire in June 2022. Its operations are expected to resume in mid-2023.
Replas, which has worked with REDcycle since the program was founded in 2011, stopped accepting material in early November. Plastic Forest ceased its partnership in February 2021 after joining in 2019.
In previous public statements, REDcycle has asserted that it only began storing plastic after June 2022 for the “short-term”.
A REDcycle spokeswoman said “several unforeseen challenges, exacerbated by the pandemic” meant that three companies that normally accepted the plastic for recycling were no longer doing so.
“REDcycle has had to take the unwanted but necessary step of holding stock in warehouse storage facilities temporarily,” a media statement said in early November.
The REDcycle program was launched more than a decade ago with a trial collection program in Coles outlets.
It remains unclear how much plastic REDcycle has actually recycled in recent years, as the company has repeatedly refused to provide information about its operations.
On Wednesday, REDcycle declined to respond to any questions through its legal representatives, Wilckens Roche Lawyers.
Under the REDcycle scheme, users dropped off soft plastics at collection points at supermarkets across Australia.
Coles and Woolworths have claimed they did not know REDcycle was engaged in any kind of stockpiling until late October this year and strenuously deny knowledge of any long-term problems with the program.
But both chains have refused to answer whether any audit of the nation’s premier consumer soft plastics recycling program was ever conducted. Coles has been a REDcycle partner for more than a decade.
“The circumstances which led to REDcycle storing collected plastics and ultimately suspending its program on 9 November 2022 are complex and multi-faceted,” a Coles spokeswoman said.
Coles chief operating officer Matt Swindells has previously said the amount of plastics being held by REDcycle was believed to be “significant”. Coles has refused to elaborate.
A Woolworths’ representative said issues about long-term stockpiling were “never raised” with the chain by REDcycle despite fortnightly meetings and site visits.
REDcycle is the name of the recycling program run by for-profit company, RG Programs and Services Pty Ltd.
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