The Curse of Recycling Black Plastic in Wiltshire
The black plastic generally used by supermarkets for their ready meals is CPET: Crystalline Polyethylene Terephthalate and it’s a truly astonishing material. This modern plastic is not only suitable for food, it’s freezer proof, microwavable, oven proof and extremely cheap to supply and manufacture. The super powers of this biologically indestructible plastic is bad news for our land, air and water. With the recycling of black plastic at almost low levels for many parts of the UK – black plastic is nothing short of an environmental cancer. Times being tough for everyone – tight budgets basically means most Councils in the UK – Including Wiltshire Council choose not to recycle our black plastic waste. Why? Simply because it’s not cost effective to do so. The council earns rebates on recycled materials they sell, which in turn helps pay for the council workers etc. Black plastic is the least valuable and most difficult to sort.
Black plastic is expensive to recycle because it’s a mixed polymer and since most sorting plants use optical sorting techniques to identify the different polymer types, they are not able to identify black plastic trays. As such, Wiltshire Council will not collect this type of packaging so if you put black plastic in your blue lidded recycling bin, it will be rejected at the sorting plant and end up in the residual waste pile and not recycled.
I wrote to Wiltshire Council to ask about the Council’s strategy for dealing with the pollution issue of black plastics and landfill and here’s the reply:
‘Wiltshire Council’s current waste strategy does not promote the separate collection of this type of plastic at the present time for several reasons.
• The council has concluded that the provision of such a system, to process this type of plastic, across a predominantly rural area such as Wiltshire, would be expensive, and would be an unnecessary financial burden on Wiltshire residents at this time of increasing demand on key services, against a back drop of reducing funding from central government.
• As you may also be aware, there is currently not a facility to separate and process as a specific requirement on local authorities, at this present time.
• A further factor is that when the council went to the market some years ago to procure landfill diversion contracts, despite not specifying a technical solution, the options brought forward involved energy from waste processing, and mechanical biological treatment. No options involving the separate collection or treatment of this plastic came forward at that time. As a consequence we now divert 50,000 tonnes of residual waste from landfill per annum using the Lakeside Energy from Waste Facility in Slough, and a further 60,000 tonnes per annum via the Mechanical Biological Treatment facility in Northacre, Westbury. In both cases, these processes ensure that significant amounts of this plastic waste are diverted from landfill.
Although we appreciate that other local authorities successfully collect this plastic from the kerbside, Wiltshire Council’s waste strategy focuses on encouraging residents to try to avoid where possible this type of plastic and also to try to prevent food waste from being produced or compost any food waste that they have at home. We also subsidise food waste digesters for residents.’
At energy recovery centres the plastic is incinerated to generate electricity, (better than burning fossil fuels, in that it diverts waste from landfill), but there is of course a downside. The incineration process is still a dirty procedure (no matter how energy companies might dress it up as green): adding particulates, ammonia, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and a range of other chemical pollutants into the air we all breathe. Wiltshire’s Black plastic waste is either polluting the air, polluting the ground or being shipped off to Europe to deal with; the big problem still exists – it is not effectively recycled.
Do the supermarkets who fuel consumer demand by desirably marketing time-saving consumer groceries, meat and ready meals in black plastic convenience packaging have an obligation to ensure that waste created by their goods can be responsibly disposed of? I would like to think these retail giants are levering their purchasing might and power to lay pressure on the plastics and product design manufacturing industry. What about the companies who produce plastic trays, there is a cost implication in adding different colours to their manufacturing processes. And would consumers be prepared to pay more for their ready-meals if the trays became easier to recycle (not so according to Tesco)?
I contacted the head office customer service teams of the two supermarket brands predominantly responsible for the sale of black plastic grocery products in our area – Waitrose Marlborough, Tesco Hungerford and Tesco Marlborough. I asked the same question I asked Wiltshire Council: that I was concerned about the lack of recycling for black plastic – particularly in the use of ready meals and what is the company’s strategy for dealing with the pollution issue of plastics and landfill?
Here is what Tesco said:
Thank you for contacting us.
Ensuring we operate in a sustainable way is crucial to the long-term success of our business. We therefore work hard on all aspects of sustainability. This includes the reduction of food waste, reducing our carbon impact, sustainable forestry, agriculture, fishing and of course ensuring our packaging secures the best possible balance of protecting products while having the least possible impact on the environment.
With regard to packaging, we therefore don’t want to make decisions that cause increases in food waste, but design packaging to meet functional and environmental commitments. We are committed to design for easier recycling.
With regard to black plastics, we are aware of increasing concerns regarding the recyclability of these materials and the assumption these trays are being sent to landfill or incinerated. Given our commitments on packaging we were keen to investigate this issue as although we agree that current technology at most Material Recovery Facilities is not able to electronically sort the materials, it was not our understanding that this meant they were automatically sent to landfill or incineration – but manually sorted and down cycled into small multi-coloured flakes called ‘jazz’. This material could then be used for certain products such as artificial wood (one of many applications).
Therefore, we believe that black plastics can be recycled, and we assume that the reasons they are not are due to cost, inconsistent infrastructure to carry out the recycling as well as different (but necessary) material types that get mixed in the collection streams (e.g. Polypropylene, CPET and APET). Tesco are committed to understanding the challenges to recycling the materials are, including the challenges that local authorities currently have to collect a range of materials and formats in a consistent way.
We understand however that we all have a shared responsibility to ensure where possible packaging can be easily recycled so we are carrying out a number of steps before making a final informed decision on what to do next.
1. Tesco are investigating what happens at Materials Recovery facilities with black plastics. We wish to establish if there is any truth to claims that the materials are sent to landfill, or if they are downcycled to lower grade products.
2. The colour black is a good colour for recycling old trays into new, as the colour will allow us to mix different colours together. It is technically impossible to create a ready meal tray that goes into the oven in clear – the nature of the material is such that it has to be coloured. With so many different colours on the market, the best colour to make a recycled tray from is black as it will disguise the merging of other colours in the mix. Tesco will be conducting a customer survey on the perception that the colour black is the right one for the products they contain.
3. Tesco are also exploring the pigment technology that could make the trays easier to recycle. There has been speculation in the media on the cost of this technology, however, Tesco have yet to receive confirmation from the industry and our suppliers of the true cost. Retailers have a responsibility to minimise commercial impact for consumers. The technology involves a great number of suppliers across a complex business and it will take us some time to get to a resolution. If the technology is sustainable (commercially as well as technically) then Tesco will work with suppliers to implement it. This will allow local authorities to collect the materials and formats with renewed confidence.
4. Tesco will work with other retailers, the recycling companies and other interested parties and have already agreed to participate in a round table session for us to collectively find end markets for these materials as well as the commercially viable route to achieving the recycling.
We will continue to investigate this matter and would hope to come to a conclusion sometime during 2017. I hope this reassures you on our commitment to support recycling and our willingness to work with all stakeholders to resolve the issue.
Thank you once again for taking the time to contact us.
In summary, a fairly defensive response where Tesco assumes all Councils can recycle their black plastic to chips. Tesco prioritises aesthetics as an honest reason why they keep their trays black (otherwise it wouldn’t come out of the oven in a suitable presentation acceptable to consumers) and finally, the bottom line: products must be cheap for customers. Tesco don’t inspire confidence for action with their approach, also seems to be nowhere near coming to a conclusion owing to be December 2017 is already in the past (nor did they spell my name right!!).
So what did Waitrose have to say for themselves:
Reducing our impact on the environment is really important to us and we know it is to our customers too.
We share your concern about the use of plastics, so we’ve committed to making all our own-label packaging widely recyclable (using the widely recycled logo <https://www.recyclenow.com/recycling-knowledge/packaging-symbols-explained>), reusable, or home compostable by 2025. We were the first supermarket to stop selling products containing microbeads from September 2016 and we exclusively sell paper-stem cotton buds. This has saved 21 tonnes of plastic a year.
We’re always looking to innovate with non-plastic packaging and in October we trialled a food by-product punnet for Waitrose Duchy cherry and baby plum tomatoes which was made out of tomato leaf and recycled cardboard. If rolled out further in 2018 it will save 3.5 million plastic trays a year. At the same time we trialled our Essential Waitrose cup mushrooms in pulp punnets.
We have been making small changes across our own brand range that add up to big reductions – for example moving steak to a flat vacuum pack from a plastic tray, saving 30 tonnes of packaging each year. At the end of October 2017 our wholebird chickens have been in packaging that saves 130 tonnes of plastic a year. In November 2017 the packaging of Waitrose Duchy Organic jumbo oats 1kg changed from plastic to cardboard. This saves 7 tonnes of plastic a year.
Much of our fruit and vegetable flexible plastic packaging (including the small bags to put items in) can be recycled along with carrier bags at a recycling point at the front of our shops, and we label these packs to encourage this. The contents of the recycling point are then baled and recycled. The fruit and vegetable offer includes pre-packed goods and a selection of loose products.
We are working with our suppliers and packaging manufacturers to develop and source alternative materials to plastic and our dedication to this is ongoing.
Thank you again for the opportunity to explain our position and work on this.
A friendlier will-try tone with clear examples of how they are improving the composition of packaging materials. Unfortunately, no reference to the short term management of black plastic products particularly used in ready meals. It looks like we’ll have to wait until 2025 to see if a satisfactory environmentally solution can be put in place by big retailers. In the meantime Wiltshire alone would have sent 880,000+ tons of our waste to ‘energy recovery centres’.
In Summary, while the profit and cost driven nature of society can feel like an environmental race to the bottom. There are practical ways to reduce the amount of black plastics going to energy recovery or landfill:
Educate your friends and family about black plastics and learn how to reduce your own plastic footprint (why not send this article?).
When shopping, seek an alternative – perhaps opt for the oven ready meal in the recyclable aluminium tray instead of the black plastic microwave option?
Contact the local supermarkets / coffee shops / cafes you use and ask what they are doing to deal with the pollution and recycling issue their product causes. Every little bit helps. 😉
For some good news, trials are taking place where a food tray with slightly different pigment (which still appears to be black) can be identified by its polymer type by optical sensors at sorting plants. In September 2017 a cross-industry initiative, the ‘Black Plastic Packaging Recycling Forum’, agreed on the ‘Black Plastic Packaging Recycling Roadmap’.
They intend to roll out the use of detectable pigments, assess the feasibility of using other colours, and to develop business models and new technology to sort existing plastic trays. Back in July 2017, a consortium of plastics manufacturers and reprocessors were awarded funding from the EU to investigate alternatives into the ‘urgent’ issue of unrecyclable black plastics. They have been awarded a £1.47 million investment by the European and the project will be led by a UK-based company. According to the consortium, black plastic food trays are the area of priority for the project and will help to improve the UK’s plastics recycling rate, and will ensure that materials that can be recycled are actually recycled – preventing resources from being lost to energy recovery or landfill. Let’s hope the issue of BREXIT doesn’t interfere with this important EU wide environmental initiative.