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Undetectable black plastic packaging to be cut 66% by 2020

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

The amount of undetectable black packaging coming to market is expected to be cut by 66 per cent by the end of 2019 due to efforts to reduce the amount of black plastic used in packaging and developments in detectable pigments and sorting equipment, according to a new report by the Black Plastic Packaging Recycling Forum.

The report, ‘Options for improving the recycling of black plastic packaging’, was released today (25 June) by the Forum, which is coordinated by plastics recycling charity RECOUP, whose members include Coca-Cola European Partners, Danone Ltd, Sainsbury’s and Unilever, and provides an update on the market situation for the recycling of black plastics.

The cross-industry group, formed in 2017, committed to tackling issues of black plastic recycling, developing a Black Plastic Packaging Recycling Roadmap to find solutions to the black plastic recycling conundrum by the end of 2018.

Black plastic packaging, which is primarily used in fast food trays and other plastic pots, tubs and trays (PTT), while technically recyclable, causes issues at the sorting stage of the recycling process.

Most modern recycling sorting processes at material recycling facilities (MRFs) use near-Infra Red optical sorting technology, which uses Infra-Red light to identify different materials for sorting. Black plastic uses carbon black pigment, which absorbs Infra-Red light, making black plastic undetectable, which ends up with it not being sorted.

Range of solutions

In 2017, it was estimated that 525,000 tonnes of PTT were placed on the market, of which 35,500 tonnes were undetectable black plastic. This figure was revised down to 24,000 tonnes due to technical solutions implemented. The forum hopes to reduce this to 12,000 tonnes by the end of 2019 – a total reduction of around 66 per cent.

The report proposes a range of solutions to the black plastics recycling problem, including moving to transparent packaging, replacing black with alternative detectable colours, developing detectable black pigments and more sophisticated sorting equipment.

While RECOUP’s main aim is to reduce the amount of black plastic packaging coming onto the market – supermarkets such as Waitrose, Lidl, Tesco and Waitrose already making moves to remove black packaging from their ranges – the development of detectable black plastic means that RECOUP is more relaxed about phasing out black plastic all together.

The report also highlights difficulties with moving to different coloured Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) trays, as there are currently limited end markets for this. The Forum recommends moving to clear trays for PET, though this is not an option for Crystalline Polyethylene Terephthalate (CPET).

Recycling of existing black plastic packaging will need to be stepped up in any case with the introduction of a tax on the manufacture and import of plastic packaging containing less than 30 per cent recycled contentproposed in the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy likely to apply to all types of plastic packaging, including black plastics. This means that there will need to be a steady stream of recyclable black plastic packaging available to fulfil that requirement for producers. In this case RECOUP states that ‘industry may need to become the end market; to specify post-consumer black [plastic] and be prepared to pay for it’.

Work on black pigment has been carried out by RECOUP members, including Unilever, which in partnership with RECOUP and Veolia, SUEZ, Viridor and TOMRA has trialled the use of a new detectable black pigment that can be technically detected in UK MRF facilities in the UK.

Further work is underway to develop commercially viable sorting equipment housed in bespoke ‘centres of excellence’ to deal with coloured plastics packaging, clear PTT and remaining black plastics packaging. This is a longer-term option as it requires ‘long-term agreement from all stakeholders as to funding and payback to justify it’. RECOUP has earmarked future funding from the extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime for packaging as potentially being used to develop these ‘centres of excellence’.

‘Practical steps forward’

Commenting on the report, Stuart Foster, RECOUP CEO, said: “Despite the inevitable politics and positioning behind issues such as black plastic packaging recycling, our role at RECOUP is to bring the various groups and stakeholders together to make practical steps forward. I hope we have helped to avoid knee jerk reactions to the challenge of improving plastic recycling potential, and instead have turned ambitions and collaborative thinking into actual long term solutions.”

Paul East, RECOUP Packaging Technologist and project leader, added: “We appreciate it can take time to deliver the changes needed to improve recyclability, but there is no reason why all plastic packaging can't adopt the basic principle that it must not inhibit the sorting or recycling process, as part of the design specifications. As shown in the new report, removing or coming out of black in favour of a transparent pack or detectable colour has been seen as the quickest solution in many cases, and therefore most popular. To balance this, the report also includes the potentially important role of black and darker plastic as a base colour as we move towards the requirement for greater recycled content.”

You can read the Black Plastic Packaging Forum’s report, ‘Options for improving the recycling of black plastic packaging’, on the RECOUP website.


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