Recycling is an imperative part of creating a more sustainable future. However, as many Australians strive to become more eco-friendly, many need to correct this essential step. The fact is a lot of soft plastics end up in recycling facilities that cannot process this type of material.
One of the significant hurdles recycling plants face is the improper disposal of soft plastics. These plastics are commonly manufactured using a variety of polymer resins, such as polyethylene and polypropylene, with a range of different properties and melting points. This type of plastic is often contaminated with food and oils and can be a nightmare to sort – particularly if the plastic is layered.
Soft plastics or post-consumer soft plastic packaging (PCSPP) are also incredibly lightweight; unfortunately, this can lead to them becoming easily tangled in machinery used during recycling. Specialised machinery is required to recycle this type of plastic. However, the general public must be aware of the headache recycling facilities face with the bombardment of soft plastics caught up in the collection process. Recycling of soft plastic is a challenging task. It is incredibly complex due to the massive amount of variety and additives this type of plastic contains.
Back in November 2022, the soft plastic issue was highlighted in Australia with the collapse of the popular REDcycle recycling program. After consumers became aware that the program was stockpiling approximately 11,000 tonnes of soft plastics, sadly, this program did not do any recycling as many consumers believed when dropping their soft plastics off at the local supermarket. The program was only set up for collection; the fact is that in Australia, there is no recycling available for large amounts of soft plastic.
The Soft Plastic Recycling Challenge
Soft plastics, such as plastic bags, food packaging, and wrappers, pose a unique challenge in recycling facilities across Australia. Unlike rigid plastics – think milk bottles and soda bottles - soft plastics are not quickly sorted or processed in traditional recycling facilities. When soft plastics contaminate other recyclables, they can easily pollute the recycling stream, leading to difficulties in separating and recycling different materials.
The Impact of Incorrect Recycling
When soft plastics are incorrectly recycled or disposed of, they often end up in landfills or litter the environment. Soft plastic waste in landfills takes significant time to break down, contributing to the growing waste problem. Moreover, when soft plastics contaminate recycling streams, it hampers the efficiency of recycling facilities, resulting in lower recycling rates and increased costs. Consumers must know the impact of throwing non-recyclable soft plastics waste into recycling bins.
Recycling Statistics in Australia
The statistics on soft plastic recycling in Australia are concerning. According to Clean Up Australia, around 20,700 tons of soft plastic packaging, equivalent to approximately 1.5 billion plastic bags, are disposed of annually. Shockingly, only around 9% of soft plastics in Australia are recycled through designated drop-off locations. The remaining majority, unfortunately, ends up in landfills or as litter.
Global Recycling Challenges
While focusing on Australia, it is essential to acknowledge that soft plastic recycling is a global issue. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that less than 9% of plastics are effectively recycled globally. This means that most plastic waste is either incinerated, sent to landfills, or accumulated in the environment, contributing to pollution and harming ecosystems.
The Solution? Promoting Responsible Recycling
To combat the challenges associated with soft plastic recycling and reduce the environmental impact of plastic waste, communities are advised to consider their recycling behaviours seriously. Making it a household objective to ensure that individuals are abolishing their ‘wish cycling’ habits and are correctly recycling. Also, consider switching to compostable and biodegradable soft plastic options and encourage supermarkets and the like to adopt eco-friendly plastics. Other tips include:
- Use biodegradable and compostable soft plastics that can be easily transformed into nutrient-rich soils.
- Check your local recycling guidelines. Different councils may have specific guidelines for recycling, so it's essential to check with your local council or recycling authorities for advice.
- Reduce and reuse. Consumers are advised to choose reusable alternatives to single-use soft plastics. This reduces the overall demand for these items and minimises waste generation.
Compostable Soft Plastics
Compostable soft plastics offer a more sustainable alternative to conventional plastics and have been proven to reduce landfill and emissions during waste collection and manufacturing. These materials are designed to break down under specific conditions, such as in industrial composting facilities, and allow communities to transform their waste into nutrient-rich soil – benefiting the planet and the garden!
Compostable plastics can be a viable option for reducing waste and minimising environmental problems. However, it's important to note that compostable plastics should not be mixed with regular recycling. All compostable plastics must be composted – not recycled – at home or a local composting facility.
Addressing the challenges recycling plants face regarding soft plastics requires a collective effort from individuals, communities, and governments. By adopting responsible recycling practices, investing in compostable plastics, and correctly disposing of soft plastics, we can all contribute to a more efficient and sustainable recycling system.