4 Sep 2023

Should soft plastics be collected in kerbside recycling?

From Checkpoint, 5:48 pm on 4 September 2023

For many people, plastic waste like chip packets, bread bags and thin plastic packaging get put in the too hard basket, i.e. the rubbish bin. 

It is estimated that thousands of tonnes of soft plastics are sent to landfill each year, so if it was an option to put them in with kerbside recycling would that get more people onboard?

Right now, keen recyclers need to drop off their soft plastic stations at supermarkets or the Warehouse, otherwise it goes to the tip. 

While the number of people who do recycle their soft plastics is growing, Lyn Mayes from industry group the Packaging Forum admitted the current system would never be completely effective.

"If you've got a drop off system, you'll only ever get to about a third of your population... if you want to get those numbers up, you actually have to make it easy for people, and making it easy for people typically means a kerbside collection."

Regular recycling plants were not currently set up to deal with soft plastics. 

However, other countries were trialling workarounds, like a separate bag for soft plastics which could be put in a regular recycling bin.

"In the UK... you put your soft plastics into this blue bag, you pop into the top of your recycling bin, and when it goes in the truck... it gets picked off and then they go off to be recycled as soft plastic," Mayes said.   

The other issue was what the extra plastic would be used for. 

One of the companies hoping to solve that problem is Future Post, which turns recycled soft plastics into fence posts. 

Founder Jerome Winzlick said if soft plastics were to be collected kerbside he would need to upgrade his operation to process all the extra plastic. 

"It'd just mean us to work maybe 24/7 instead of 20/6, maybe build another factory if we had a bit of support." 

However, Winzlick believed Future Post would be able to keep up with extra quantities of plastic. 

There were plenty of farmers and vineyard owners keen to buy the posts, as they were relatively cheap and lasted longer than wood, he said.

Auckland Council general manager waste solutions Parul Sood said she would be keeping a close eye on soft plastic recycling trials taking place overseas but had some reservations. 

"There is a level of discipline that would be required to actually put it in a bag, and not put them loose, so how do you make sure that happens? Also remember, when recycling goes into a truck it has some compaction, would those bags burst?"

She thought a monetary incentive, similar to a container return scheme, could also help to keep more soft plastic out of landfill. 

"If you're adding money, value to the product, people then tend to do the right thing, so I think we need to think about how do we incentivise people to do the right thing to make that effort."

Sood said she would like thank those who were putting in the extra effort to recycle.

"For the people who are doing a great job, well done and thank you so much."