Legislative Council: Wednesday, May 17, 2023


Soft Plastics Recycling

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. H. M. Girolamo:

1. That a select committee of the Legislative Council be established to inquire into and report on the recycling of soft plastics and other recyclable material in South Australia, with particular reference to:

(a) how South Australia has responded to REDcycle being unable to process soft plastics;

(b) investigating how supermarkets and other collection points have ceased collections and what can be done to re-establish these services;

(c) determining whether funding from the state government (including Green Industries SA funding) has been sufficient to support South Australian businesses and local government councils within the soft plastics and other recyclables industry;

(d) identifying short and long-term opportunities and solutions to ensure soft plastics can be recycled in South Australia;

(e) examining strategies more broadly to reduce soft plastic waste generation and better management of commercial and residential waste; and

(f) any other related matters.

2. That this council permits the select committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it sees fit, of any evidence or documents presented to the committee prior to such evidence being presented to the council.

(Continued from 3 May 2023.)

The Hon. T.T. NGO (16:59): Our impact on this planet will be much more long-term than our life span. For this reason, it is our duty to see that a greater effort is made to ensure our waste become a resource and helps to create a better and more sustainable environment for our future generations. When it became evident REDcycle was unable to process soft plastics, the complexity of the execution process of reducing soft plastics going to landfill became very clear.

I am sure many of you will remember the disturbing pictures of tonnes of soft plastics appearing in the media. These were in fact the soft plastics that were dropped off at supermarkets by customers and collected. The huge piles of stockpiled waste—once the collapse and the inability of REDcycle's domestic recycling program became known—were devastating to see. Any new collection and recycling program for single-use soft plastics will need to overcome the community scepticism that remains from those images and media reports.

As a community, we must increase and continue our consumer education and awareness campaigns. Raising awareness about the importance of recycling soft plastics is critical to encouraging a greater take-up of re-usable alternatives and encouraging consumers to commit to changing how they dispose of soft plastics. I hope that the establishment of the select committee can begin to identify how short-term efforts, such as consumer education campaigns, can work effectively with longer term solutions such as infrastructure strategies and technological advancements.

South Australia is already proving to be a leader in the area of renewables with a firm commitment to fostering a circular economy. The circular economy is more than just recycling or resource recovery. If materials cannot be suitably collected, processed and recycled by being remanufactured into another product and used, then they do not fit within the circular economy or in a suitable future.

This government welcomes efforts to identify solutions and strategies to complement the considerable work already being undertaken to implement the circular economy in South Australia. We can make recycling soft plastics and preserving our valuable resources a reality for our children. I am optimistic and believe the changing technological landscape, along with the development of long-term strategies to implement systematic change in this space, is certainly achievable.

Here in South Australia, we have entrenched recycling behaviours due to our nation-leading efforts with our container deposit scheme, single-use plastic bans, and the well-established three-bin kerbside system. We have also consistently achieved the highest landfill diversion rate in the country, with an outcome of greater than 83 per cent. The government, via Green Industries SA, has contributed funding towards several local council soft plastics collection trials. These trials will provide a good understanding of the collection methods; however, as I have mentioned, end-market challenges for the material remain.

The joint SA and commonwealth governments' Recycling Modernisation Fund, mentioned by the Hon. Heidi Girolamo, allocated $1 million specifically toward soft plastics processing in SA. Green Industries SA recently ran a further call for applications to allocate this funding. I understand that this assessment process is underway. This government welcomes efforts to identify solutions and strategies to complement the considerable work already being undertaken. There is certainly opportunity for this select committee to facilitate more initiatives and supportive government policies as this government continues to promote an uptake of consumer recycling practices as well as sustainable packaging.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (17:05): I rise to speak in favour of this motion. The Greens, of course, are supportive of the establishment of this committee. In doing so, I want to acknowledge the leadership of all sides of politics in terms of trying to tackle and reduce waste. It would be remiss of me, I think, if I did not acknowledge the leadership of the Leader of the Opposition in this regard during his time as environment minister, when he championed legislation that led the country in terms of reducing single-use plastics. That was a really important innovation, so I acknowledge his leadership in that regard and also the leadership of the Labor Party, and more recently the support the government has provided to a Greens bill to allow for BYO containers to be brought into food establishments to reduce waste.

There is lots of work that is being done but there is always space to do more, and it is in that spirit that the Greens welcome this committee, particularly when one considers the problems that have been plaguing the use of soft plastics. Avoiding, reducing, re-using and recycling waste is integral to effective waste management and to achieving zero waste in our state. Waste, including soft plastics, should be treated as a resource and re-used to create new products in a way that achieves the maximum social, economic and environmental benefit.

A circular economy, as we all know, leads to new industries and to new investment. REDcycle was a program that was first established to divert plastic bags and other soft plastics from landfill, turning them into resources used to manufacture new products. According to Clean Up Australia, Australians throw away about 7,150 recyclable bags a minute, or 429,000 per hour—429,000 per hour. This figure does not include the countless bread bags, frozen vegetable bags, pasta bags, biscuit packets and sachets that consumers bring home from the supermarket every single time they shop.

Plastic bags and packaging cannot be collected by most local councils as part of their kerbside pickup; instead, they typically end up in landfill or as litter, and we know that that harms our wildlife and our environment. The REDcycle program was a voluntary, industry-led initiative and a true product stewardship model where everybody involved in the cycle of a product's packaging, including the manufacturers, the retailers and the consumers, chose to share responsibility for the best end-of-life outcome.

Consumers would collect all of the soft plastics that cannot be recycled at home and drop them into the REDcycle program drop-off bins at participating supermarkets. The collected plastic was then returned to RED Group's facility for initial processing and then delivered to Australian manufacturer Replas where they underwent transformation. The resulting recycled plastic products were then turned into items such as fitness circuits, sturdy outdoor furniture, bollards and other products. These products were extremely robust, as well as water and termite resistant, and not susceptible to cracking, splintering or rotting, and they did not even require painting, so a very effective way to use that waste.

The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation estimates that less than 5 per cent of consumer soft plastic was collected by the REDcycle program. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic heralded a boom in online shopping which, in turn, resulted in soft plastic collection volumes increasing by more than 350 per cent since 2019—350 per cent since 2019. This, coupled with a reduced demand for recycled products, led to stockpiling of collected soft plastics, forcing REDcycle to pause their program in November 2022. No longer able to pay the storage fees, REDcycle was declared insolvent, and that was a really disappointing outcome.

Since then, the Soft Plastics Taskforce has been established, and the Greens have very much welcomed this development. The task force is made up of the major supermarket retailers Aldi, Coles and Woolworths and has released the Roadmap to Restart, outlining the steps needed to launch a new supermarket soft plastic collection scheme in Australia. However, several challenges do remain, confronting those seeking to relaunch a scheme. These include limited access to domestic soft plastic recycling that can manage the soft plastics that are deposited by the public in supermarket collection bins and an inability to recycle the volume of household soft plastics collected in a supermarket program using domestic infrastructure.

It is paramount for our community and our planet that we are able to deal with these challenges. To ensure the viability of soft plastics recycling schemes, our state needs to both increase its capacity to recycle soft plastics at scale and ensure the market for the end product is either equal to or greater than the amount of soft plastics being collected for recycling.

According to the Soft Plastics Taskforce's current plan, an initial in-store collection pilot is anticipated to launch in select stores in late 2023, provided that REDcycle's existing soft plastic stockpiles can be cleared. The new program would then be gradually rolled out nationwide next year. At the same time, I understand the Australian Food and Grocery Council is developing the National Plastics Recycling Scheme to take hard-to-recycle soft plastic packaging out of waste streams and give it a new life, making it easier for people to recycle soft plastics at home.

Restoring public trust in soft plastic recycling schemes is vitally important. This place has a responsibility to the community and to future generations to not only support but ensure that these schemes are successful. The proposed select committee will have an important role to play in investigating solutions that will ensure the viability and functionality of these schemes. The Greens are pleased to support the committee, and we look forward to seeing how this matter progresses.

The Hon. F. PANGALLO (17:11): SA-Best supports the motion and looks forward to exploring the current state and future of plastic recycling and other recyclable materials in South Australia. This state has led the country in recycling with the 10¢ container deposit refund offered at recycling depots, which has been in place for decades and has been very effective in reducing plastic waste and pollution in our environment. Other states are now following our example.

Plastic is one of those evils we cannot do without. It is a remarkable product that is used in countless ways and, unless there is a more effective and easily recycled material invented, it will be with us for a long time yet. However, waste remains a scourge globally and is the single biggest threat to our environment. Countless tonnes are dumped in waterways, in landfill and in the oceans. There is the plastic you can see and the minute particles you cannot, which pose a danger not just to sea creatures but to humans as well. Scientific analysis has shown that nanoparticles have also been ingested and are present in our bodies.

Every year, 350 million tonnes of plastic are produced, with 14 million tonnes ending up in the oceans. Estimates claim that, at the current rate, single-use plastic production could account for 5 to 10 per cent of the world's greenhouse emissions by 2050. The Philippines, India, Malaysia and China are the largest generators of plastic waste. China produced 80 million tonnes of plastic last year, yet just 17 per cent gets recycled. Plastic waste has piled up since China imposed its green wall, Operation National Sword, banning the import of plastic waste for recycling.

Surprisingly, Australia uses around 70 billion pieces of soft plastics, such as food wrappers and stickers, each year. Our plastics use equates to 3.4 million tonnes. One-third of that is single-use plastic, 84 per cent of which goes into landfill. We are the biggest users of single-use plastics per capita, but that is changing.

I am anticipating that this inquiry will look at the effectiveness of recycling of plastic as well as aluminium. Surprisingly, reports this week showed that there was nowhere in Australia recycling the billions of aluminium cans and many other products made from it. I would expect the committee would also explore municipal waste disposal systems, the impact of plastic production and the effect disposal of it has on climate change.

Australia is heading on the right track, with states moving legislation to control and manage plastic waste, but there is still a long way to go. It is encouraging to see community and environmentally-minded corporates and organisations, like the Australian Food and Grocery Association, looking at dispensing with plastic bags, single-use plastics and the packaging on products.

It will be interesting to also hear from the CSIRO on its ongoing research on reducing plastic in the environment and exploring other strategies in managing the amount of plastic waste. I would also like to see how the government is using the waste levy, which now stands at around $150 million, to tackle plastic waste and encourage recycling. I commend the motion to the chamber.

The Hon. J.S. LEE (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (17:15): I move an amendment to the motion as follows:

Paragraph 1(c)—after 'recyclables industry' insert 'including aluminium'.

The Hon. H.M. GIROLAMO (17:16): I thank all honourable members for their contributions and support within what is a very important area, both from an environmental aspect but also the economic elements, ensuring that there are viable businesses to be able to process the exorbitant amount of waste currently coming through within soft plastics. I wholeheartedly support the interest in aluminium as well; I think it is an important area that could potentially have a separate review and interest.

I very much thank all honourable members for their interest and support. I think this could be an invaluable bipartisan committee where we can collate ideas, information and look forward to engaging with experts in this area and come up with some tangible recommendations that can be put forward.

Amendment carried; motion as amended carried.

The Hon. H.M. GIROLAMO (17:17): I move:

That the select committee consist of the Hon. Michelle Lensink, the Hon. Tung Ngo, the Hon. Justin Hanson, the Hon. Robert Simms and the mover.

Motion carried.

The Hon. H.M. GIROLAMO: I move:

That the select committee have power to send for persons, papers and records, to adjourn from place to place and to report on 28 June 2023.

Motion carried.