Ever wondered what happens to your soft plastics after you drop them in a REDcycle bin at a Coles supermarket? You might find them in road construction, building work, even back at the store as a bench or shopping trolley.
The new life of your soft plastic
“Coles has supported this program since I was literally sitting at my kitchen table. They had faith in me, and REDcycle really wouldn’t be here without Coles giving the program a chance.” – REDcycle founder Liz Kasell
You may have seen the specially marked REDcycle bins at Coles supermarkets. The partnership sees customers’ soft plastics recycled into durable, reusable products, and is an integral part of Coles’ mission to reduce its impact on the environment.
It started as a pilot program in 100 Melbourne stores a decade ago. Since then Coles customers have returned 1.8 billion pieces of plastic to supermarkets around Australia.
As REDcycle and Coles celebrate 10 years of saving more than a million pieces per day of soft plastic from landfill, we take you through the journey of soft plastic, from the recycling bin back to the shopping aisle.
A big idea
In 2009, Liz Kasell first started wondering why the soft plastics that entered her house - bread bags, biscuit wrappers and frozen pea packets - couldn’t be recycled.
“I was a concerned consumer and mum, sitting at my kitchen table wondering why my rigid plastics could be recycled kerbside but those soft plastics couldn’t,” says the now-director of RED Group, which operates the REDcycle program.
Her investigations took her to the Ballarat-based company Replas, a specialist in producing recycled plastic goods. At the time the only soft plastics Replas dealt with came from commercial sectors rather than households. But when Liz knocked on the door with a plastic bread bag in her hand, the company decided it was ready to take the next step.
First came a program in Victorian primary schools in which each kilo of soft plastics collected by students was a credit towards a recycled plastic bench. The success of the initiative saw the need for a transition from an annual school-based plastic drive, with parents and their kids turning up with trailer loads. “We were completely overwhelmed – as were the schools.”
Pick-up once a year became once a month when Liz undertook an audit of the plastics collected. “We found 95 per cent was generated from the products sold in supermarkets, so we decided to approach Coles to see if they’d be interested in partnering with us.”
The answer was a resounding “yes”, and REDcycle was born in Melbourne Coles supermarkets as a trial in 2011. “Coles has supported this program since I was literally sitting at my kitchen table,” says Liz. “They weren’t concerned that I was just one person. They had faith in me, and REDcycle really wouldn’t be here without Coles giving the program a chance.”
Soft plastics are dropped into the bins
So what happens to the more than one million pieces of soft plastics put in the bins each day around the nation?
The bins are emptied by Coles team members several times a day (in some stores it’s up to 20), who take the contents out to the back of the supermarket where it will be picked up by RED Group trucks. Coles pays for the transport of the waste – approximately 5,000 collections a month - to the RED Group depot in each capital city where it is sorted, baled and sent on to recycling partners.
The recycling begins
Recycling soft plastics is a tricky business, says Replas managing director Mark Jacobsen. “It’s the waste of the waste [ie, the lowest-grade waste] and few have the technology or know-how to deal with it.” He likens the ever-changing mix of soft plastics to baking: “Imagine making the same cake each time with different ingredients – that’s what we have to do. But we learn from our mistakes and after so many years we’ve got a good understanding of it.”
After honing its skills and technology, Replas now produces more than 250 recycled plastic products including bollards, decking, fencing and furniture. Innovative products such as Polyrok, which is a sustainable alternative to aggregate minerals used in concrete, have been poured in new Coles store constructions (its first-ever use at the new Coles supermarket car park in Horsham last year repurposed around 900,000 pieces of soft plastic).
Another sustainability partner, Close the Loop, uses REDcycle plastic in the creation of its award-winning asphalt additive, TonerPlas, which results in roads that last longer and require less maintenance.
TonerPlas has just been approved for use on a Melbourne freeway upgrade: “It’s a major milestone,” says Close the Loop founder Steve Morriss. Currently, Close the Loop is producing 1,000 tonnes of TonerPlas each year, with every tonne using the equivalent of 106,000 plastic bags.
Close the Loop has also created a soft plastics-derived product called rFlex. It is used in the new Coles supercarts – hybrid shopping trolleys with a steel base and recycled plastic basket currently being trialled in select stores.
The recycled products lead back to Coles
Take a closer look next time you’re in a Coles supermarket and you might see that customer benches are made from strong, durable plastic rather than timber. The cardboard box holders and hand-sanitising stations may also made of recycled plastic; so are parts of newer trolleys.
An integral part of the REDcycle program is that Coles buys back a significant amount of the recycled plastic products.
“Without the purchasing of recycled products, the whole recycling process falls away and the traditional methods of landfill become the only solution,” explains Coles’ Head of Resource Recovery, Wade Mosse. And while Coles constantly looks to use REDcycle products – it has, for instance, given away more than 600 recycled plastic benches to schools – the emerging industrial uses promise an exciting new future for saving soft plastics from landfill.
“You’ve got to find a use for it,” says Wade. “As the industry gets better at producing higher-grade products from recycled soft plastics, like Polyrok, TonerPlas and rFlex, there’s a great chance they can soak up all the soft plastics and then some.”
Wade also points out that while the REDcycle program has huge benefits, the Coles packaging team is constantly working towards reducing waste in the first place by making its Own Brand packaging more sustainable.
Coles has aligned with Australia’s 2025 National Packaging Targets which will see all Coles Own Brand packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, an average of 50% recycled content used across Own Brand packaging, and the Australasian Recycling label used across is Own Brand products to help customers know how to recycle their packaging. In addition, Coles is a founding member of the ANZPAC Plastics Pact which includes a commitment to achieving 25% average recycled content in plastics packaging.
For REDcycle founder Liz, the past 10 years have provided a heartening insight into Australian customers’ willingness to do their bit for the environment.
“Once they start participating in REDcycle they can never go back; they’re REDcyclers for life,” she says. “One piece of feedback we received said that participating in REDcycling is like cleaning your teeth. It’s not so much a sustainable behaviour anymore, it’s just a behaviour. We really love that.”