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A plastic recycler says ambitious goals for recycling are being hampered by a lack of leadership from the federal government. 

This week, which is National Recycling Week, it was revealed REDcycle had temporarily suspended its soft plastics recycling scheme at supermarkets.

The company was unable to pass on the materials to recycling partners for processing and had been storing it in warehouses.

REDcycle provides a rare avenue for the recycling of soft plastics, which are often unable to be collected via verge-side recycling programs run by local governments.

It is now advising people to put their soft plastics in their standard landfill rubbish bins.

Narelle Kuppers is the founder of Precious Plastic Margaret River, which turns plastic lids into items including combs and surf board fins.

She said the issues faced by REDcycle highlighted some of the challenges facing those in the industry.

“It’s very difficult to recycle and make money from the items that we are processing,” she said.

“I’m a bit shocked to be honest with you, because they’re the big guys — they’re the ones I thought were actually going to make it.”

Industry, government has failed, expert says

Speaking from the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, Curtin University sustainability professor Peter Newman said Australians wanted to do their part and recycle, but the infrastructure wasn’t there to help them.

“This is devastating for all the people who recycle fastidiously,” he said.

“We all need to do our bit, but industry has failed and probably, government has failed as well, in enabling this process.

“We just can’t seem to get our act together in Australia to make this work.”

Professor Newman said regulations were needed to make sure all plastic products were required to contain recycled plastic. 

A man Yates inspects a bail of the plastic bags of recycling
The environment minister says $60 million has been set aside to tackle hard to recycle plastics.(ABC News: Stephanie Anderson)

“Plastic is made from oil and it breaks down into CO2 (carbon dioxide),” Professor Newman said.

“Nine per cent of oil goes into making plastics, so its part of the climate issue.”

Heavy reliance on volunteers

Ms Kuppers said the government needed to put more money towards employing people to recycle. 

“From the point of collecting plastic lids [and] getting them to my workshop, it takes about five hours to sort 10 kilograms of lids,” she said.

“I am expecting volunteers to do that because I can’t afford to pay anyone.”

She said the lids then needed to be sorted into different types of plastic and colours, washed, dried and shredded before they were processed.

Close of hand holding plastic bottle tops
Ms Kuppers says it takes five hours to sort 10 kilograms of plastic lids.(ABC South West: Anthony Pancia)

“For me to make a pot plant and saucer that I can sell for $30 it would take over an hour and then you have your overheads,” she said.

“Education is also a massive point that’s often missed [and] contamination is a massive issue.”

$60 million earmarked for soft plastics problem

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said she was working with retailers to address the stockpile of soft plastics and come up with better recycling options in the near term.

“It is a very difficult problem to address immediately, and I’m having ongoing discussions with the retailers and the industry,” she said.

“Our own government has set aside close to a quarter of a billion dollars to invest in new recycling infrastructure, including $60 million set aside in particular to address this issue of hard to recycle plastics.”

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