How to recycle plastic bags and wrappers

They can't go in your regular recycling bin, so how can you prevent flexible plastics from ending up in landfill?

A proliferation of plastic

Aussies use 3.92 billion plastic bags a year – that's over 10 million new bags being used every day. And the bulk of these end up in landfill – 7,150 every minute, according to Clean Up Australia's calculations. They also find their way into our beaches and our waterways.

And it's not just plastic bags. Think of all the other plastic that ends up in your bin: bubble wrap, chip packets, bread bags, and the plastic film that covers your magazine and newspaper subscriptions, for example.

These types of plastic can't go in your kerbside recycling bin, as they can wreak havoc with the machinery in recycling facilities. But there is an alternative to throwing them in the rubbish bin.

What is REDcycle?

REDcycle is a recycling program that diverts flexible plastics – the ones you can't put in your kerbside recycling bin – from landfill and turns them into a material that can be used to manufacture new products.

How do I use it?

Simply collect up all the soft plastics that can't be recycled at home, and then drop them into the REDcycle collection bins at participating supermarkets. There are drop-off bins near the checkouts in 480 Coles stores and 100 Woolworths stores around the country, and you can find your closest drop-off point using the store locator on REDcycle's website.

Currently, the REDcycle Program operates in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart and Perth, plus on the Gold Coast, in the Wollongong area, in Geelong and on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula; there's no presence in the Northern Territory to date. But anyone who can't get to a REDcycle Program drop-off point can post their plastic to its facility in Laverton.

Which plastics does it collect?

The rule of thumb is: if the plastic can be scrunched up into a ball, it can be placed in a REDcycle collection bin. Examples of acceptable plastics include:

  • Bread, pasta and rice bags
  • Cereal box liners
  • Biscuit packets
  • Frozen food bags
  • Ice cream wrappers
  • Squeeze pouches
  • Plastic sachets
  • Bubble wrap
  • Cling wrap
  • Chocolate and muesli bar wrappers
  • Silver-lined chip and cracker packets
  • Confectionery bags
  • Fresh produce bags
  • Netting citrus bags
  • Polypropylene bags
  • Plastic film from grocery items like nappies and toilet paper
  • Courier satchels
  • Newspaper and magazine wrap
  • Sturdy pet food bags
  • Plastic bags from boutique/department stores
  • Large sheets of plastic that furniture comes wrapped in (cut into pieces the size of an A3 sheet of paper first)

If you're curious about whether an item can/can't be recycled using REDcycle, and it doesn't appear on the list above or in its FAQs, ask them in an email.

What happens to the plastic?

REDcycle collects the plastic, does some initial processing and then delivers the plastic to Australian manufacturer Replas. Replas blends this mixed plastic with rigid plastic to form a material viable for use in the manufacture of new recycled-plastic products, such as outdoor furniture and signage.

One example of this transformed material is the company's product Enduroplank, which was used to build the footbridge that leads to the MCG.

What are the limitations of the program?

The REDcycle program is limited in what it can collect by how much its program partner Replas can use – unless there is an ongoing demand for Replas products, it runs the risk of stockpiling plastic and becoming a collection service rather than a recycling service. So at the moment it has no plans to install collection bins in other supermarket chains, or in other locations such as shopping centres, for example.

It's also worth noting that its partner organisations are manufacturers and retailers, all of which produce or sell products for which plastic is an integral part of their packaging or transportation. But by partnering with REDcycle, they're at least sharing responsibility, and contributing to a solution.

Reduce and reuse

Of course, the most environmentally friendly approach to the issue of our plastic-bag surplus is to give up the habit entirely, or at least cut right back. Planet Ark gives the following tips for reducing your use of, or reusing, plastic bags:

  • Use reusable bags (such as the supermarket 'green bags') or a backpack for your shopping – just remember to take them with you to shops!
  • Instead of purchasing purpose-made plastic bags for your household rubbish, put dry or clean items straight into your bin. For wet or smelly garbage, such as non-compostable food scraps, try wrapping it in old bread bags, the bags from inside cereal boxes, or even a sheet of newspaper.
  • Reuse any plastic bags that you do have, and recycle them in the REDcycle collection bins at the supermarket if they're damaged.
  • Encourage your town or council to go plastic-bag free, and/or implement plastic bag reduction actions such as a community bag-share program. See Planet Ark's Tips for Councils and Towns page for more information, including case studies of towns that have made the change.

Which is the better choice for our environment: biodegradable, degradable or compostable plastic bags? Find out in our article on biodegradable plastic.

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