Seeking clarity for flexible plastic packaging

Written by: Stuart Foster | Published:
There are several practical barriers which prevent flexibles being compatible with many existing UK collection and MRF systems

RECOUP receives more questions about flexible plastic packaging than anything else.

Is it recyclable? Will my local authority collect it? Where does it end up? Why do so many questions persist about plastic film, and what can be done to clear up the confusion?

First, let’s clarify what is meant by flexibles. This category of plastic packaging covers things such as carrier bags, the film lids found on ready-meals, bread bags, breakfast cereal lining, crisp packets, cellophane, cling film and shrink wrap.

Plastic film can be made with different polymers, the main types being polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).

It is estimated that around 750,000 tonnes of plastic film from packaging ends up in the UK waste stream every year (PlasticFlow 2025 – WRAP/VALPAK/RECOUP/Verde). Of this, approximately half comes from households and half from commercial, industrial and agricultural sources.

There are several practical barriers which prevent flexibles being compatible with many existing UK collection and material recovery facility (MRF) systems, such as the contamination of established plastic bottle bales and paper lines, as well as preventing flexibles from clogging sorting equipment.

In addition, plastic films can be clear or coloured, printed or plain, single or multi-layered to enable the packaging to protect and preserve the food, and these variations all affect its recyclability.Yet, as with all plastics, it is possible to recycle this type of packaging. The challenge today is working to overcome the barriers that prevent more plastic film from being recycled, the first of which is the confusion that surrounds disposing of it correctly.

Collection confusion

The lack of consistency in the way plastic film is collected is an ongoing source of confusion, and the situation is compounded by the fact that the number of local authorities collecting flexibles is decreasing (67 in 2018 compared with 70 in 2011).

Of those that do collect film, 26 specifically state they only accept empty carrier bags for this service, while some local authorities have removed plastic film from their kerbside collection service altogether to be in line with the recommended consistent collections of materials, or due to a lack of viable end markets.

Ultimately this combination of operational sorting issues in MRFs and an absence of viable end markets for post-consumer film means an increase in local authority collections is unrealistic without significant financial investment or incentives.

RECOUP has also found that information is not always clear when local authorities report their film collections.

When dry recyclables are collected in bags, a local authority can report they accept plastic film, but this does not always include the wider collection of plastic film such as carrier bags, bread bags and shrink wrap.

The issues with labelling

Of course, confusion also exists around labelling which, while not deliberately misleading, is ambiguous to householders.

The Green Dot symbol, for example, is believed by many to mean an item is recyclable. In fact it signifies that the producer has made a financial contribution towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe.

The On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) system, meanwhile, gives clear information for each packaging component and material, and recyclability is defined by the proportion of local authorities offering kerbside collection services for that material and component.

Innovative solutions

RECOUP is engaging with packaging manufacturers that produce laminated flexible packaging products to fit with the PE recycling stream, to ensure that all the facts are available, and that the products will be recyclable.

The objective is not to challenge the manufacturers or to stifle innovation, but to ensure that all stakeholders are working towards alternatives which are suitable for the current collection and reprocessing infrastructure.

The most effective solution could be found at the packaging design stage. Packaging should be designed to satisfy technical, consumer and customer needs in a way that minimises environmental impact. This means that packaging should be designed to use the minimum amount of resources for its purpose, and once it has completed its job the scope for recovery is maximised.

Often small alterations to packaging design can make a big difference when it comes to recyclability and some retailers are now looking at ways in which they can make their flexibles more environmentally friendly.

The most effective means of improving plastic packaging recycling performance, and preventing plastic packaging from leaking into the environment, is to ensure manufacturers design for recyclability and label products clearly to help consumers dispose of used plastic packaging in the appropriate bin.

Stuart Foster is CEO of environmental charity RECOUP.


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