Research from WRAP suggests that flexible film accounted for 290,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste in 2019. In the UK, it makes up a quarter of all our plastic consumer packaging. Separate research from the Flexible Packaging Consortium revealed that some 215 billion pieces of flexible plastic packaging are placed on the UK market every year. Until now, almost all of this material has been sent to landfill or incineration; a mere 6% has been recycled.

Why hasn’t it been recycled?

There are several reasons why soft plastics have not hitherto been recycled. Only 16% of local authorities collect them. This is because they cannot be recycled mechanically in a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF); the recycling route for most post-consumer plastic. Plastic films wrap themselves around moving machinery, causing it to malfunction. If these films reach the MRF’s fibre sorting screens, the screens become blocked and their ability to sort materials effectively is reduced, which diminishes material quality. If the screens become severely blocked, the plant will have to be shut down for cleaning.

Soft plastic used for food packaging, such as baby food and pet food pouches, and cling film, is likely to be contaminated with food, while crisp bags are often made from a hard-to-recycle composite material. Finally, because films are so lightweight, recycling is a more expensive option than landfill or energy recovery.

The Plastics Pact

With almost all of this material going to landfill, or at best energy recovery, both Government and industry realised that recycling rates must improve if we are to create a truly circular economy for plastics. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) included a commitment to increasing the recycling of soft plastics in its Plastics Pact, a voluntary initiative to which many large manufacturers and retailers have signed up. One of the headline targets is for 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable. Looking specifically at flexible plastics, the Pact’s aims are:

  • packaging that is designed to be recycled and sorted
  • initially, collecting plastics at supermarkets (see below)
  • in the longer term, kerbside collection in all local authority areas
  • investment in sorting and reprocessing
  • a stronger market for recycled flexible plastic packaging.

The pledges made by Plastics Pact signatories have been acted upon, with large manufacturers, major retailers and reprocessors investing in soft plastics recycling during 2021.

Supermarket collections

As 2021 progressed, the list of supermarket chains collecting soft plastics grew. The recycled soft plastics can be made into packaging or used for products such as bin bags, buckets or construction materials. The Plastics Pact has set a target for 10% of post-consumer flexible plastics to be collected at supermarkets by the end of 2022.

Tesco has recently rolled out soft plastics collection to all its major stores. This followed a pilot project in which the amount of plastic brought by the public was 10 times more than expected. Consumers want to see these plastics recycled and are happy to bring them to a convenient collection point.

During the initial trials in 2020, collected plastics were used to make food-grade packaging for Tesco own-brand cheeses. A more recent sample indicated that 80% of the plastic collected was recycled and 20% was sent to energy-from-waste generation facilities.

Sainsbury’s is also planning to introduce in-store recycling systems for flexible plastics packaging across all stores nationwide, following successful trials in the north east of England earlier this year. Aldi is the latest chain to set up collection points, initially at 20 stores.

Co-op’s pilot project in the village of Pilton, Somerset, involved consumer education. They had discovered that around half of consumers did not know which plastics could be put in the local authority collections and were unwittingly contributing to contamination by including films etc. They have since rolled out collection points to 1500 stores.

Morrison’s focus is on eliminating in-store waste through the creation of Zero Waste Stores. This initiative includes the collection of soft plastics from consumers. The soft plastic will be converted to board products in the UK. Their interim target is to reduce in-store waste by 84%, eventually moving to zero waste.

Flexible Plastic Fund: developing infrastructure and markets

In May 2021, manufacturers Mars UK, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever announced their support for a new £1 million initiative to improve the recyclability of soft plastic bags, wrappers, films, pouches, packets and sachets. The main purpose of the Flexible Plastic Fund is to incentivise the development of new recycling infrastructure. The manufacturers guaranteed a minimum value of £100 per tonne of recycled material, thus creating a market for recycled soft plastic, which has hitherto been a low-value product. The scheme is organised by producer compliance scheme, Ecosurety, and environmental charity Hubbub, who are urging more manufacturers to invest in the Fund, more retailers to collect flexible plastic for recycling and more recyclers to reprocess flexible plastics.

A key feature of this new initiative is that 80% of the collected plastics will be reprocessed in the UK. The material will be rigorously traced to ensure that it is all properly recycled and does not end up being illegally disposed of in countries such as Turkey and Malaysia, which import large quantities of the UK’s plastic waste.

Growth in reprocessing

In July 2021, Jayplas, a member of the Plastics Pact, opened a new facility in Loughborough which is capable of recycling 25,000 tonnes of LDPE (low density polyethylene) per year. The LDPE will come from supermarket collections, post-consumer plastic, and films used in agriculture and construction. It will be converted into plastic granules which can be made into new products such as refuse sacks and carrier bags.

Eventually, WRAP hopes that a greater proportion of flexible plastic will be suitable for recycling into food-grade material in addition to the lower-value recycled products such as bin bags.

Waste reduction is still the best option

Householders (such as the author of this article) may well have had a shock when they started collecting soft plastics to take to their local supermarket and saw the large amount that accumulates each week. While recycling is a far better option than landfill, waste reduction will always be at the top of the hierarchy.

Supermarkets are continuing their efforts to reduce plastic packaging. Iceland, for example, is replacing plastic trays for ready meals with cardboard and will eliminate plastic from all its own-brand products, while Sainsbury’s has committed to a 50% reduction in all plastic packaging by 2025. Waitrose was the first supermarket to sell unpacked products. Customers bring their own containers to fill with groceries such as dried pasta, cereal, coffee, frozen fruit, meat, fish, detergent and washing up liquid. Morrisons aims to save three tonnes of plastic per week with bagless fruit and veg shelves.

The Plastics Pact signatories have already gone a long way in the journey to create a new plastics economy, and we can look forward to more success stories in the years to come.