Most flexible plastic packaging in the UK can be recycled, but the collection, sorting, and recycling infrastructure to make that happen requires an investment of around $120 million, says British resource recovery company Axion Group.
Approximately 414,000 metric tons of plastic-based flexible packaging is placed on the UK market each year, according to Axion, a Cheshire-based company operating in the resource recovery sector. Flexible packaging — including plastic bags, candy wrappers, frozen food bags and pouches — makes up 27% of consumer plastic packaging in the country but most of that heads to landfills or energy recovery.
The latest figures show that recycling rates in the UK have stalled, Axion says. After jumping from 12 to 40% from 2001 to 2010, the rates only rose to 45.2% for 2016 – 2017.
“The big problem is the lack of adequate facilities designed to process these largely-recyclable materials,” said Richard McKinlay, Axion’s head of circular economy. “If we are to increase the UK’s stalling recycling rate and hit future targets, the recycling of flexible packaging offers potential economic and environmental benefits.”
A two-year project called R&D Reflex led by Axion showed that 80% of post-consumer flexible packaging, which is usually polypropylene or polyethylene, could be recycled — including those with metalized and barrier coatings. Much of the remaining non-recyclable 20% could be re-designed using better material to maintain performance while improving recyclability, the project found.
“Uncertainty still reigns over what is recyclable when it comes to flexible packaging,” McKinlay said. “Extensive testing and research we did through the Reflex project delivered really valuable knowledge on processing these waste materials. We know that flexible packaging that has been designed for end-of-life can be recycled, so we need the facilities in place to do it.”
Around $120 million (£100 million) would be required to enable PP and PE film recycling from curbside collections in the UK, McKinlay estimates. He suggested that the investment could come from Extended Producer Responsibility schemes encouraging brands to design for end-of-life in exchange for reduced compliance fees. Creating end markets for the recycled polymers is also important, according to Axion.
Plastics recycling factors into waste reduction plans announced by major UK retailers this spring. Companies including Sainsbury’s, Ikea, and Aldi agreed to publicly disclose their efforts to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2020.
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