The collected plastic waste would fill about three and a half Olympic sized swimming pools © Photo by Jason South/The Age via Getty Images
The collected plastic waste would fill about three and a half Olympic sized swimming pools © Photo by Jason South/The Age via Getty Images

Coles and Woolworths ordered to dump 'thousands of tonnes' of plastic waste

6 February 2023

Australia’s largest supermarkets Coles and Woolworths have been ordered to dispose of “stockpiled” plastic waste after a consumer recycling programme was suspended. 

New South Wales Environment Protection Authority (EPA) served Coles and Woolworths with a draft notice to remove over 5,200 tonnes of soft plastic stockpiled at 15 sites across the state.

The supermarkets had been partaking in the REDcycle soft plastics collection programme, which encouraged customers to dispose of soft plastics including biscuit wrappers, bread bags and pet food pouches to recycling facilities in the stores. 

However, the scheme was suspended on 9 November, after a fire at a key facility used by the firm and “pandemic-related downturns” made it impossible to recycle the volumes of soft plastic collected.

Tony Chappel, CEO of NSW EPA, said the stores had a responsibility to address the stockpiled waste.

He said the waste may “unfortunately end up in landfill” rather than being recycled as the agency denominated the collected plastics to be a fire risk and ordered their immediate removal. 

Chappel said: “Thousands of customers diligently collected soft plastics and dropped them into their local supermarket’s collection bin because they trusted their waste would be diverted from landfill and recycled.

“The extent of soft plastic waste sitting in warehouses across NSW is very concerning and I know customers will be disappointed.”

Chappel added that the plastic waste would fill about three and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools and was stored from the floor to the ceiling, blocking entry ways and preventing adequate ventilation.

Chappel continued: “To protect our communities and environment, these materials need to be removed to reduce the risk of a fire.”

The event has caused “a major blow to consumer confidence” he said, and added NSW wanted to reaffirm its commitment to tripling the recycling rate of plastics by 2030.

“Each year, NSW recycles around 66% of all waste but we know there is more work to do when it comes to plastic waste,” Chappel added. 

“Our largest retailers have an important role to play in how we continue to reduce plastic waste and we are committed to working together so we can support opportunities and minimise risk.” 

The retailers have been given six days to comment on the draft notices.

Coles – which has targets to increase the plastic packaging collected and recycled at its stores by 25% by 2025 – said it was part of a task force trying to find a solution for the stockpile.

“Coles, along with the other members of the Soft Plastics Taskforce, met with REDcycle and the NSW and Victorian EPAs on Friday, where REDcycle confirmed their ongoing engagement with the EPAs, to discuss the stockpile situation,” a spokesperson said.

Woolworths said it had sought further clarification on the EPA’s position. A spokesperson told ABC news: "We were surprised to receive this draft notice, as Redcycle has indicated they have plans to deal with these stockpiles.”

REDcycle said: “The REDcycle team took the unwanted but necessary decision to hold the material in storage in the short term. Holding soft plastics in stock is not a perfect solution, but REDcycle took the decision to hold material in the short term, at great personal expense to the organisation, because they are fundamentally and profoundly committed to keeping the material out of landfill.  

“The REDcycle team has been working tirelessly behind the scenes to find other processing solutions and end markets. Potential new opportunities are being presented every day, however they will take time to operationalise.”

In the meantime, it has encouraged customers to place the materials in landfill. 

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