Crinkly plastic: not so impossible to recycle after all?

Martin Wright
The UK generates around 414,000 tonnes of flexible packaging every year. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Do you own a cat? Eat crisps? Have the odd biscuit?

Then chances are you’re contributing to one of the UK’s most intractable forms of waste – flexible packaging. It’s hard to collect, hard to identify exactly what it’s composed of and hard to recycle. Some of it – think of the shiny insides of cat food pouches, crisp bags and toothpaste tubes, for example – is doubly tricky, as it contains aluminium.

At the moment, the UK generates around 414,000 tonnes of the stuff each year – most of which ends up in landfill or is burned in incinerators for energy recovery. Smart and circular, it ain’t - quite yet.

Depressed at the thought? Don’t be. Because two new studies have demonstrated that – contrary to previous belief – much of this can actually be recycled, and at minimal cost. Get it right, and it could even be a profitable business, too.

The first study, carried out under the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) in partnership with waste management company Suez and local authorities, looked at how to boost recycling rates of flexible packaging containing aluminium. This involved asking householders to separate out their cat food pouches, crisp bags and so on, and put them out for collection alongside their regular recycling – a hassle factor which was rewarded for some with incentives such as free swimming sessions at municipal pools.

The packages were then subjected to various technical processes by which the aluminium and plastic were recovered and turned into raw material for new products. And when it came to totting up the costs and benefits, says Stuart Hayward-Higham, Suez’s technical development director, the results were surprising. “We thought it would be a net cost, but it turned out to be more or less cost neutral.”

But, he adds, it wouldn’t contribute much to improving the UK’s official recycling rate, as under current metrics, that’s calculated by weight, and as a proportion of the waste stream, flexible laminated packaging is distinctly lightweight. “The main benefits are in terms of carbon and resource savings”, he says, “so it adds weight to the case for more sophisticated metrics.”

That said, by demonstrating the viability of recovering such “hard to recycle” waste, the Defra study was valuable ammunition for a wide ranging research programme conducted by resource consultants Axion in partnership with Suez and other industry players, including Unilever, Nestle and Dow. Entitled REFLEX, this looked at the potential of recovering all manner of flexible plastic packaging, from the ubiquitous crisp bags to biscuit and sweet wrappers – “anything that rattles, creaks and crackles”, as Hayward-Higham puts it.

Again, the starting assumption was pessimistic; it was thought that the plastics involved, not to mention the various different glues and inks, were so varied that recycling would be painfully complex if not downright impossible, and certainly commercially challenging. But when technicians analysed the samples plucked off the recycling belts, they discovered that nearly 80% were composed of two common plastics – polyethylene and polypropylene (so-called polyolefins). This meant they could be turned into plastic pellets suitable as raw material for all sorts of uses, packaging included. The system can even deal with packaging contaminated with small quantities of food waste, although for health reasons this has to go towards non-food uses – such as detergent bottles.

As for the remaining 20%, it should be possible in time for product designers to choose packaging materials which also fall into the polyolefin category, so ensuring their recyclability. And by working together, packaging designers and recycling specialists should be able to iron out discrepancies in choices of inks, dyes, glues and so on, to make the process even smoother.

Problem solved?

Not quite. There are a few hurdles yet to overcome.

Among them, the task of ensuring that recycling facilities can easily distinguish the polyolefins from other plastics, so as to make the separation process simple and straightforward – which in turn would allow consumers to toss all their plastic wrappers in the recycling bin, rather than try to work out which was which. Work is underway on developing a digital “marking” system which could be read by a camera positioned above the recycling belt – although the tendency for plastic wrappers to be scrunched up may still cause problems with readability.

Then there is the fact that not all local authority recycling centres can handle flexible waste – and with recycling contracts running for an average of seven years, it will in many cases be a while before it makes commercial sense for them to “retool” to be able to do so.

But in the long term, none of these problems are insurmountable, says Hayward-Higham. The REFLEX study concluded that two new bespoke centres could handle all of the country’s flexible plastic packaging – and do so at a profit, too. Some limited government support may be needed in the early stages, but overall, this would seem to be a commercial proposition.

There are plans to launch a successor initiative, CEFLEX, which would bring together a wider group of companies and organisations, looking at a broader range of flexibles.

This is good news for the prospect of making plastic packaging part and parcel of the circular economy – rattles, crackles, creaks and all.

Content on this page is paid for and produced to a brief agreed by Suez, sponsor of the circular economy hub

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes