Coles, Nestle in plans to build first-ever soft plastics recycling plant

A consortium of high-profile companies including Coles and Nestle is planning to build a soft plastics recycling plant where chocolate bar wrappers or chip bags can be broken down and remade into new food-safe wrappings.

This Australian first-ever ‘circular’ soft plastics recycling plant is set to be built in Victoria, with the consortium preparing to kickstart the project in the coming months.

The technical, economic and environmental benefits of such a plant are being assessed as part of a feasibility study done by the two high-profile retailers in partnership with a bevy of multinationals and local technology companies, including $36 billion Dutch packaging manufacturer LyondellBasell, local biochemical startup Licella, and recycling company iQ Renew.

Coles’ chief property, export and sustainability officer Thinus Keeve.

The group has already picked an area in Geelong suitable to construct the plant, which would be capable of producing 17,000 tonnes of soft plastic each year, enough to supply between 1.5 and 2 million homes.

Around 110 jobs would be produced through the construction and ongoing operation of the plant, but the consortium is hopeful the initial plant would be just the first of many.

“Around Australia, we’re looking at potentially 20 of these plants, but our focus initially is on Victoria,” Licella chief executive Len Humphreys said. “Our objective is to work with Coles around the country to close this loop in a way that’s never been done before.”

If built, the plant would be the first of its kind in Australia, able to take soft plastics – such as chocolate bar wrappers or chip bags – and recycle them into an oil that can then be used to create more food-safe soft plastic wrappings.

Circular recycling in this fashion has been historically difficult. Coles already runs a soft plastics recycling program with RedCycle, however, it is only able to convert the plastics into non-food safe materials, such as park benches or road base.

Coles’ chief property, export and sustainability officer Thinus Keeve told The Age the supermarket was keen to see the plant established, noting it would go a long way towards the retailer’s long-term sustainability goals.

“This deal is really about closing the loop from a selection and technology perspective, so that the plastic that gets manufactured today for food can be used tomorrow for food again,” he said.

While the project is still in its feasibility study phase, Mr Keeve said Coles was keen to support Licella and the other members of the consortium to “get this off the ground”.

Soft plastics, such as chip bags and wrappers, are far harder to recycle than hard plastics such as water bottles.Credit:Joe Armao

Licella is building a similar commercial plant in the UK. Earlier this month it also completed a small-scale trial with Nestle, producing a prototype recycled KitKat wrapper.

While each member of the consortium is co-investing in the feasibility study, it’s not known if Coles will be an investor in the plant as well, with Mr Keeve saying it was too early in the process to know.

“But it’s fair to say we are very interested in this, and as Australia’s most sustainable supermarket we will be supporting initiatives like this to complete the circular economy,” he said.

Over the long term, these plants could incur cost savings for Coles’ private-label products, as the cost to purchase packaging would be lower, however, Mr Keeve said the retailer’s main objective was environmental, not financial.

Last year, the government passed the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act which will ban companies from exporting mixed plastic waste by July 2022, meaning local recycling solutions such as Licella’s will be required.

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