• 'Let's not waste this crisis': Liz Kasell, founder of REDcycle
    'Let's not waste this crisis': Liz Kasell, founder of REDcycle
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In the wake of the announcement of the suspension of soft plastics recycling program REDcycle, the packaging industry has been highly vocal in its support for founder Liz Kasell and REDcycle, as stakeholders work to find solutions to the crisis. In an exclusive interview PKN spoke to Kasell and asked key industry players to weigh in.

Last week’s PKN headline ‘Industry reels at news of REDcycle’s suspension’ captured the sense of how the news landed. Reel we did. For many, it was a shock, a disappointment, a painful setback. It was also a catalyst for dialogue. Since the news broke, social media has lit up with commentary and the conversation, and debate, continues.

Rising to the top of the media maelstrom, though, is an almost unanimous outpouring of support for Liz Kasell and the REDcycle team from brand owners, suppliers, industry organisations, recyclers, and consumers.

Several key messages have emerged. This is not a failing on the part of REDcycle. The collection side of the recycling programme has worked and consumer uptake has burgeoned. The lack of recycling infrastructure, compounded by a lack of market demand for products using the recycled soft plastic, is not REDcycle’s responsibility – it’s a whole of value chain responsibility.

To frame the discussion, REDcycle has asked PKN to make it clear that the stockpiling was not a secret cover-up – the decision to hold soft plastic in storage was not for commercial gain, but rather it was a “stop gap until the soft plastics recycling industry is operational again”. By this, REDcycle is referring in part to its largest user, Close The Loop, whose recycling line is out of action due to a fire at the plant earlier this year, and which will only be onstream by July next year. The good news is that it will come back with expanded capacity, as confirmed by CEO of Close the Loop Group, Joe Foster, who reinforced the group’s commitment to use REDcycle material as a feedstock for its TonerPlas and rFlex products.

There are a limited number of recycling organisations able to process soft plastic in Australia. When REDcycle's recycling partners (Close the Loop, Plastic Forests, Replas*) said they could no longer accept material, REDcycle had two options. It could stop collection (with no other organisations in Australia collecting and processing soft plastics, this would have meant all consumers would have to put all their soft plastic in the rubbish bin), or store it. REDcycle made the decision to store the materials it at its own expense, and as soon as the recycling facilities became operational again send it for recycling.

(*Replas has since made a statement that it will once again be accepting REDcycle material, but it only uses very low volumes in the products it makes.)

In an exclusive interview with Liz Kasell today, she said the groundswell of support for REDcycle from community and industry has been the most “incredible outcome” of this challenge.

“It has meant so much to our team on a personal level and only reinforces how important REDcycle is to Australians. This is a pivotal moment for all stakeholders to play a greater role and accelerate the solutions that we have been working tirelessly to put in place.”

Referring to PKN’s observation that support is all very well, but it needs to translate into action, Kasell responded: “You are correct, we need action now and the whole value chain working together.”

So, what are next steps for REDcycle?

“We are devastated that the program is paused, and our total focus is working with industry and government to unblock the pipeline that REDcycle built over a decade ago,” Kasell said.

“We want to see the program resume as quickly as possible, but it requires capacity to be made available downstream. This is a circular system, meaning supply and demand must be in balance.”

Kasell says the crisis for REDcycle occurred when supply increased more than 350 per cent during the pandemic period but demand in end market pull-through fell 95 per cent. This created a critical imbalance in the REDcycle pipeline that had been managed for the better part of ten years.

Top of mind for many is the burning question, what is going to happen in the short term to the stockpile?

Kasell said, “We have approached government, both state and federal, and our industry partners to understand what options are available in the short term, such as export. While this is not ideal, onshore downstream manufacturers such as Close the Loop are about seven months away from having their line back up and running.”

That said, Kasell noted that REDcycle is Close the Loop’s most important supply partner and there is significant pent-up demand for its TonerPlas product.

Another important product that is expected will be in production at scale by mid-2023 is Polyrok, a concrete aggregate replacement product containing over 90 per cent soft plastics.

“The most important market sector for these two manufacturers is local and state government,” Kasell said. “We would like to see procurement mandates that specify recycled content from a domestic source. There seems to be a loophole where recycled content sourced offshore can be counted as ‘buying recycled’. While that is true, buying recycled content products sourced offshore doesn’t impact recycling rates here or support a domestic circular economy.”

“This is a dynamic time for the soft plastic value chain and the interim pause on REDcycle is purely a result of a circular system experiencing serious growing pains,” Kasell said.

In many ways this challenge highlights that the transition to an Australian circular economy for plastic is starting to happen. Kassel said: “We have growing supply, more soft plastic diverted from landfill. Now we need to accelerate the downstream processing technologies so we can extract the value from this resource.”

The good news is there is commercial scale infrastructure and processing technology such as the SPEC - Soft Plastics Engineered Commodity facility - landing in Australia within the next 12 to 18 months.

And this is where REDcycle's partner iQRenew comes in. Danial Gallagher, iQRenew CEO, told PKN: “REDcycle is the reason businesses like iQRenew can build infrastructure like our commercial demonstration SPEC facility, as REDcycle gave us access to high quality and reliable feedstock. 

Gallagher said, “iQRenew is building the missing infrastructure link in the soft plastic value chain, so that soft plastics can be sorted, processed, and manufactured onshore. Within 18 months, iQRenew’s commercial scale SPEC infrastructure will give thousands of businesses in Australia and globally the opportunity to play an active and meaningful role in the soft plastic value chain.

“Liz Kasell single-handedly shone a light on soft plastics, well before it had the global social licence profile it now has. Liz started the movement to allow Australian businesses to engage in the post-consumer soft plastic value chain in Australia. iQRenew joined forces with REDcycle to help scale Australia’s soft plastics recycling capabilities and we’re committed to continuing that journey.”

“Ironically, REDcycle would only be able to supply a portion of what will be needed without significantly increasing the size of its recovery network,” Kasell said, “That means the balance between supply and demand will shift the other way.”

Asked which stakeholders in the value chain she sees as being able to provide the most valuable assistance at this time, Kasell responded: “We are working very closely with industry organisations such as APCO [Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation], AFGC [Australian Food and Grocery Council], and ACOR [Australian Council of Recycling], and looking at proactive and practical assistance and advocacy.

“We also are in contact with our supermarket and brand partners. While the REDcycle collection points are paused, the soft plastic still needs to move through the pipeline, and we need the continued support of all our partners at this time.

“Lastly, we are liaising with Government to seek support and it’s good to see the focus on this issue. This challenge requires the whole value chain working together. As a colleague said to me last night, ‘let’s not waste this crisis’.”

Indeed.

RETAILER PULL-THROUGH REQUIRED

“It's not recycled until the end product made from the recycled product is bought by retailers and is back on shelf,” David Hodge, owner of Plastics Forests, told an ABC 7.30 report.

In an interview with PKN, Hodge explained that he had to stop accepting material from REDcycle because there was not enough demand for the plastic garden products he was making using recycled soft plastics, and there would have been if they were listed by large retailers.

At the heart of the problem is that Australian businesses do not value secondary raw material as yet. Coles and Woolworths have now said they are now commited to buying back or funding recycled products. 

GOVERNMENT STANCE 

Environmental lobbyists are calling for government intervention to make recycled products more competitive on shelf. Jeff Angel of Total Environment Centre says financial incentives should be put in place, and calls for a much better communications program around recycled products as well as legislated targets to be met by industry.

Just this week, Government has announced its commitment to a global coalition, pledging Australia will recycle all plastic waste by 2040. Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said that this is a signal from government that Australia is prepared to be held to account.

Speaking to ABC 7.30, Plibersek said she has made it very clear to the industry that it needs to get its act together, promising more legislation if the biggest producers of waste don't come to the party.

“If industry can't get this right on their own, then the commonwealth and state and territory governments will step in and we will regulate,” Plibersek told ABC.

NESTLE RESPONDS

PKN reached out to REDcycle partner Nestlé, a huge user of soft plastics on hundreds of product SKUs.

Margaret Stuart, director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Nestlé Oceania, said: “We’re disappointed to see a scheme that has done so much good reach this point, and will be working with others to find solutions, recognising that this is a challenging material.

“Over the last few years, Nestlé has put significant focus on the question of how soft plastics can be collected and processed at scale, working with the value chain to trial kerbside collection and advanced recycling.

“We’re now actively participating in the development of the AFGC’s National Plastics Recycling Scheme, an extended producer responsibility scheme designed to ensure a better future for soft plastics.”

AFGC TRIALS

The AFGC scheme, announced last week, has initiated a series of trials of kerbside collection of soft plastic packaging in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges Shire Council. The trials are part of the National Plastics Recycling Scheme (NPRS) project, which is led by the AFGC, and will help design a model for large-scale ‘bag-in-bin’ kerbside collection and sorting of soft plastic packaging for advanced recycling.

“The project aims to close the loop for soft plastic packaging, capturing it to create food-grade recycled packaging materials that local food and grocery manufacturers need, but currently have to buy from overseas,” said Tanya Barden, AFGC’s CEO.

The technology to be employed is advanced recycling which is currently in pilot trials at Australian Plastics Recycling. 

Barden said the REDcycle store drop-off program, which is not connected to the NPRS project, addressed a part of the recycling market, but for the longer term, there is a need for a larger scale program to recycle soft plastics and provide recycled, food-grade packaging material onshore.

AMCOR’s VIEWPOINT

PKN also spoke to the leading supplier of flexible packaging in the region, Amcor Flexibles, about progress on the development of recyclable materials.

While no comment was made specifically about REDcycle, director of Sustainability Amcor Flexibles Asia Pacific, Richard Smith said: “We have been working as Amcor on our global commitment to ensure we have for customers solutions that are recyclable or re-usable by 2025.  In fact, we are very advanced in Australia and New Zealand, and we believe that by end of 2023, approximately 95 per cent of everything we sell will be recyclable – well on the way to meeting our 2025 targets. When we say recyclable, we mean to the new guidelines recently announced for soft plastics by APCO, which fully align to the CEFLEX guidelines.”

Smith said, “We take our leadership position very seriously. The whole team at Amcor has been working tirelessly for some years now on recycle-ready packaging, working with our customers and in collaboration with all the value chain, to enable the circularity of flexible packaging (soft plastics) in Australia and New Zealand.

“Our progress to date is a huge testament to our team and our valued customers. It’s our view that recycle-ready soft plastics is just the start of the journey. We are very focused on having food grade circular materials, which we will really start to change our industry at scale for circularity of soft plastics.”

LESSONS FROM OTHER MARKETS

Weighing in from the UK market, is plastics recycling expert Professor Ed Kosior. He, too, reiterated support for Liz Kasell’s pioneering work. He said in the UK supermarket chain Tesco had seen a similar escalation in volumes of soft plastics collected during Covid, to the extent that this situation becomes an “embarrassment by success of the collection system”.

The issue, he says, and as many other industry spokespeople have noted, is scaling. REDcycle’s collection did not match the scale of the recycling infrastructure on the ground, and when much of that was removed from the equation, the inevitable happened.

Kosior is well qualified to comment. He is renowned for developing the award-winning NEXTLOOPP circular recycling system for food-grade polypropylene, which is currently in final trial phase. And his company, Nextek, has been involved in the design of a number of the new recycling plants under development in Australia.

In the flexible packaging space, Nextek is the initiator of COtooCLEAN, a multi-participant project that aims to identify and accelerate novel solutions to enable more effective collection, processing, and recycling of flexible film plastics. Nextek’s focus on finding a viable solution to decontaminate food-grade post-consumer polyolefin films effectively and sustainably, led to the COtooCLEAN project.

Kosior says the groundbreaking process, based on supercritical CO2 to decontaminate plastic films back to food-grade quality, aims to fill the gap in the recycling stream where food-safe post-consumer polyolefin films are currently missing.

COtooCLEAN’s commercial process can be integrated into mechanical recycling operations and can treat printed and multi-layer films to make them much easier to recycle. Down the track, Nextek’s development could have potential in helping Australia’s soft plastic recycling systems.

In the short term, Kosior says the most critical thing is to resume REDcycle collection as soon as possible to minimise the impact on consumer’s faith in the system and their current habit of returning soft plastics to store.

Under the current circumstances, the film material collected will have to be stored. This is where Kosior thinks local councils and businesses involved in film manufacture could step in, storing the material while the next step is taken – developing recycling facilities that operate on a larger scale.

Kosior says the end markets are there for the recycled material, especially for food grade recycled film but also for heavy duty agricultural films. Yes, there are technical barriers to overcome, such as finding ways to decontaminate the material, but the collection must continue so the feedstock is ready when the recycling plants will need the volume to make their operation viable.

“Equipment can be built fairly quickly, and a start can be made on shredding and floating to decontaminate the material fairly quickly. Once we have a shift in the quality going up, the end markets will be ready – they’re in need of it right now.”

His final words echo what everyone else has been saying, and what we are all hopeful will happen now: “The supply chain has to come together to solve this”.

Managing Editor’s note: For me, as a strong advocate for the program, the REDcycle announcement was one of those "where were you when you heard the news about…" moments. I was just off a flight, sitting in Melbourne airport, and what followed was a long night of off-the-record conversations with stakeholders. I want to thank everyone who has spoken to me both off the record and on. PKN will continue to follow this developing story and bring you updates as we have them.

 

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