As a planet, we’re producing waste at an unprecedented rate. Plastic, in particular, is a major environmental concern.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 98% of all plastic is made from virgin plastic. Once that plastic is at the end of its life, it’s estimated that around 40% goes to landfill. Another five to 13 million tonnes of plastic is leaked into our oceans each year.
These are scary statistics. And as a business that loves the outdoors, we have a responsibility to minimise our own impact. In 2016, we set up ‘Project Polybag’, an internal initiative that aimed to recycle 100% of our plastic polybags across 165 stores, two distribution centres and two offices.
It's part of our bigger plan to send zero waste to landfill by 2020.
What is a polybag and why do we use them?
Polybags are a soft plastic used to encase and transport goods around the world. You’ve probably seen them if you’ve ordered something online, or asked for a new item from the storeroom.
In fact, almost every product around the world utilises plastic polybags to help it during transport. As a result, the retail industry produces millions of tonnes of polybags.
The cons are obvious. Plastic polybags have a short shelf-life before they are discarded. But without them, goods are damaged on the factory line and during the transport process. We ultimately create a damaged stock problem, which is much harder to solve.
It’s in this sense, plastic serves an important purpose for retailers around the world – it stops another, far bigger, waste stream from accumulating.
What are we doing about it?
A few years ago we audited our waste streams across our network including stores, offices and our distribution centres. It became clear that the recycling and responsible management of soft plastics (like polybags) was critical.
To address this, the audits also identified where we needed to integrate recycling bins. The Melbourne Distribution Centre became an early adaptor. In 2016 we introduced soft plastic recycling bins and their plastic recycling increased from approximately 65% to 91%.
Since then, we’ve installed soft plastics recycling into 144 stores. A big part of the program is bringing all our stores along on the journey — to give them the power and incentives to find their own solutions.
What about alternative options?
Have we explored biodegradable options? Yes. But using biodegradable polybags is not straightforward either — most commercial waste companies do not accept this material for soft plastics recycling, so they go to landfill instead.
What’s the end result for our polybags?
Polybags are collected by your standard commercial recycling and waste company. They collect the material using trucks, send the material to a sorting station, and ship to countries like China, Malaysia, and Indonesia for reprocessing.
Typically, the material is used for filler in objects like piping and other plastic-based products.
The challenges with recycling soft plastics
One big barrier to 100% soft plastics recycling remains shopping centres and lease agreements where waste management is out of our control.
This explains the discrepancy between New Zealand — where 100% of stores recycle soft plastics — and Australia, where the figure is only 84%.
The other challenge is the recycling industry as a whole. Waste and recycling is a business. China recently put a ban on accepting recycling material from other countries. This has affected and decreased the price and value of this material. Unfortunately, it has become harder for commercial waste companies to distribute this material to a buyer.
In the future, we may see the price for recycling and sending waste to landfill skyrocket. That cost will be passed on to consumers, and in a way, this is a positive thing. It may reduce waste in the first place and move us towards reducing and reusing.
Our progress so far
We’ve been working to implement soft plastics recycling across our entire 165 store network. In 2018, 38 more stores joined the fold. Now 88% of our stores are recycling polybags.
On average, one of our store fills up a 660 litre recycling wheelie bin of soft plastics each week, which is about 7.5kgs. During our busiest periods, we can easily fill up four of these recycling bins per week. We’re proud to say soft plastic recycling has resulted in more than 15 tonnes of clear soft plastics diverted from landfill each year.
Five years ago, we set an ambitious goal of zero waste to landfill by 2018. Our plastic recycling program means we’re now 80% of the way there. We know the last few percentage points will be the hardest to achieve, and Project Polybag is just part of the bigger picture.