Coles and Woolworths risk 'losing credibility' over misleading advice on packaging

Supermarket packaging continued to be printed with outdated recycling advice after the collapse of the REDcycle scheme.

Left - A man browsing an aisle of salad wrapped in plastic. Right: The front of Coles at Bondi Junction
Supermarkets have confused customers by continuing to stock soft plastics with outdated recycling advice. Source: Getty/Yahoo

Coles and Woolworths face 'losing credibility' over misleading advice on packaging made from soft plastic.

Almost 18 months after the collapse of the popular REDcycle soft plastic recycling program, which was facilitated by Coles and Woolworths stores, packaging on home brand products continues to indicate soft plastics can be recycled despite most customers no longer having access to the service.

Near identical soft plastic packaging has conflicting consumer guidance about whether it should be binned or recycled, causing confusion among customers. While many of these labels were printed months ago, neither supermarket was unable to rule out continuing to print outdated recycling advice after REDcycle collapsed.

When Yahoo News visited Coles last week the problem was clear — plastic packaging covering its paper plates correctly said it should be binned. But another plastic bag containing its white sugar carried the outdated ‘Return to Store’ logo. Meanwhile, the wrapper on its Original Crinkle Cut Chips had the newer “Check Locally” QR code which directs consumers to recycling options in their suburb.

Across the road at Woolworths, the advice was similarly mixed-up. Its branded Sugar Snap Peas bag advises to ‘Return to Store’, while its 1kg carrots directs you to “Check Locally”

Three private label Woolworths products. The first says Bin, the second Return to Store and the third Check Locally.
Three private label Woolworths products display different recycling advice. Source: Yahoo
  • Launched in 2011, the REDcycle program provided a service that allowed consumers to return soft plastics to Coles and Woolworths for recycling in Australia. Packaging was printed with either REDcycle or Return to Store logos.

  • REDcycle stopped accepting new material in 2022 and it was announced tonnes of plastic had been stockpiled rather than recycled.

  • REDcycle was declared insolvent in February 2023 and some manufacturers replaced recycling advice with the bin logo.

  • APCO announced the new 'Check Locally' logo in July 2023, which helps customers understand if a product can be recycled by directing them to a list of waste processors in their area.

  • As of May 2024, most Australians do not have a soft plastic recycling service.

While sustainability experts have been critical of the speed with which the labelling transition occurred, it's understood having to redesign and reprint the packaging would have been a huge logistical exercise. In 2023, Coles offered more than 6000 home brand products.

After the collapse of REDcycle, Coles and Woolworths initially used traditional and in-store advertising to advise customers they could no longer return soft plastics to their stores. But today, it’s not until you get to the checkout at Coles that customers will see signs apologising that soft plastics can no longer be dropped off. And Yahoo could not find any advice inside Woolworths.

According to the supermarkets, consumers will eventually see changes to labelling on their products with a new "Check Locally" or "Bin" logo in works.

“At Coles, we are working to progressively update our Own Brand product packaging artwork to remove and replace redundant REDcycle and ‘Return to Store’ Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) messaging.

"Customers will notice updated packaging reflecting the new ‘Check Locally’ or ‘Bin’ ARL logo on items within the store,” Coles said.

Woolworths stated it has a similar plan, with packaging "gradually updated to remove the old soft plastic labels and add the updated Australasian Recycling Label which directs consumers to “Check Locally” for soft plastic recycling facilities.

Related: Woolworths announces major change to home delivery

Left - Coles consumer notice about the collapse of REDcycle. Right - A front counter at Woolworths with numerous signs.
Coles continues to display customer notices about the collapse of REDcycle, however advice was harder to come by at Woolworths stores visited by Yahoo. Among the notices at Woolies, none referred to REDcycle. Source: Yahoo

Printing soft plastic packaging is often done months in advance, and it made financial and environmental sense for Coles and Woolworths to continue to use stockpiles of soft plastics printed prior to the REDcycle collapse despite them displaying outdated recycling advice.

In April, Yahoo sent Coles and Woolworths a long list of home brand products stocked on its shelves that displayed outdated soft plastics recycling advice. Despite them carrying the supermarkets' logos much of the manufacturing is outsourced and they were unable to advise when they were printed.

Yahoo understands it's likely that outdated labelling continued to be printed on some Coles home brand products after the REDcycle collapse. Woolworths did not deny it had continued to do the same. But it indicated some products with packaging due for reprinting were redesigned to remove the Return to Store advice. Once APCO introduced its new packaging guidelines in July 2023 it's understood Woolworths immediately began to comply with the changes across all of its brands.

After the collapse of the REDcycle scheme, the peak industry body for the packaging industry Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) said it was important to restore "trust" and reinstate a new scheme that has integrity. But most Aussies still don't have access to soft plastics recycling and critics say Coles and Woolworths packaging advice is confusing customers.

The Boomerang Alliance, a coalition of sustainability non-profits, told Yahoo the supermarkets should offer consistent directions to stop what it believes is “greenwashing”.

“While the supermarkets continue with this behaviour they lose credibility. Consumers are very sensitive to this issue,” its founder Jeff Angel said.

The major supermarkets maintain they are unable to dictate how their suppliers label their products. But they are responsible for the recycling advice that's printed on their home brand products.

Related: Woolworths called out for launching PLASTIC sticker in war on waste

It took eight months after the collapse of REDcycle for APCO to release its new "Check Locally" logo to replace the defunct "Return to Store" advice.

Most retailers waited for APCO to deliver this new industry-wide labelling advice before making widespread changes to their packaging. This was to ensure there was consistency across products and avoid widespread customer confusion – something that appears to have occurred anyway despite their intentions.

Two images of Woolworths vegetables and fruit covered in plastic.
Australia's supermarkets insist they are working to reduce soft plastics. Source: Supplied/Yahoo

APCO told Yahoo there was a need for “urgency” after the REDcycle collapse, so it delivered this replacement advice four months faster than it traditionally would have.

“The process to bring a new, future-proofed label to the market that will be acceptable to the ACCC, appropriate for industry, and effective for consumers includes design, consumer testing, extensive industry and stakeholder consultation, the creation of new partnerships, and the development of accessible, clear and geographically-relevant tools,” it said in a statement.

“Traditionally, a thorough process to support an on-pack label, including development, testing and socialisation with stakeholders, would take at least 12 months. However, given the urgency of the issue APCO was able to deliver it in 8 months.”

Under guidelines issued by APCO in July 2023, manufacturers will have until July 2025 to ensure any packaging displaying the new Check Locally logo complies with recycling regulations. Trials of a national curb-side soft plastic recycling scheme are ongoing.

Coles and Woolworths maintain they are trying to reduce their reliance on soft plastics. However, hundreds of items including fresh fruit and vegetables continue to be wrapped in the substance despite it taking hundreds of years to break down.

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