UK recycling faces ‘mixed plastics’ challenge

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

Food and drink manufacturers are being encouraged to eliminate their use of ‘mixed plastics’
Food and drink manufacturers are being encouraged to eliminate their use of ‘mixed plastics’
Food and drink manufacturers are being encouraged to optimise their polyethylene terephthalate (PET) streams and eliminate their use of ‘mixed plastics’ to enable better recycling recovery rates.

With public attention focused on potentially much higher levels of investment in the collection and recycling of plastics packaging, industry experts are recommending improved PET usage, including food-grade PET, and the removal of mixed plastics – much of which has been exported up to now.

Environment Agency data for 2017 indicated that just under 686,000t of plastics waste was exported, while around half that amount (some 358,500t) was reprocessed in the UK. As a comparison, the reported proportions for paper and board waste were very similar, though volumes were significantly larger.

‘Appropriate what can be recycled’

“To move away from export, we need to appropriate what can be recycled and what has a value,”​ said Richard McGinlay, head of circular economy at recycling and consultancy business Axion. “We need to move away completely from the mixed plastics output.”

He added: “Polypropylene, for example, gets left in the mixed plastics stream. There are two plants in the UK that recycle it, but most Materials Recovery Facilities​ [MRFs] are only really designed to identify bottles.”

One of the key challenges will be ensuring that industry has a reliable, high-volume supply of food-grade PET. Presentation box and tubes converter Bell Packaging launched the Retran PET sheet earlier this year, featuring a minimum of 70% post-consumer recycled-PET (rPET) sandwiched between virgin PET.

‘No food-grade rPET’

Bell managing director Peter Lennie told Food Manufacture: “Currently, we do not have a supply of food-grade rPET, but I fully expect to reach 100% post-consumer material within the next two years.”

Quoting the technology currently being trialled by Ioniqa and Unilever in the Netherlands as a prime example, McGinlay believed there were encouraging signs that chemical recycling could answer this need for food-grade material in the future.

There are other lessons that could be learnt from mainland Europe. “Recycling in this country is nowhere near the level the economy requires,” ​Lennie said. “You look at the infrastructure in the rest of Europe, and we’ve clearly got a lot of catching up to do.”

Related topics: Packaging, Packaging materials, Environment

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