The good, the bad and the unrecyclable – what should we do about plastic packaging?

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Many UK consumers have been left frustrated and angry about reports that plastics they’ve sorted for recycling might still end up in landfill, or worse still, be polluting the oceans.
As the grocery retail sector accounts for 1 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste a year1, it’s understandable that this sector has been quick to respond.
As a UK plastic recycler, Vanden Recycling whole heartedly supports Iceland’s pledge to remove plastic packaging from its own brand range within the next five years. The company is similarly supportive of Waitrose’s announcement that it will banish own-brand black plastic trays by 2019 and Whitbread’s move to introduce water refill stations.
“These are all positive responses that will help to reduce the amount of plastic waste, and we expect others to follow their lead, but we can’t lose sight of the problem: plastic that can’t be recycled easily or cost effectively,” said David Wilson, managing director of Vanden Recycling in the UK.
Plastic packaging is an integral component for modern living. Supermarket packaging keeps products safe, extends their lifespan and limits food and product waste. Its light weight has also been instrumental in reducing carbon emissions during transport1. But at 30 per cent, the current recycling rate for consumer plastic packaging is woeful, and was rightly called out by Iain Ferguson, environment manager at Co-op 2.
“There can be no argument that this needs to change,” said David Wilson.
“The biggest factor attributing to this low recycle rate is ‘single use’ plastic, i.e. plastic that simply can’t be recycled.
“This is where new policy, legislation, design, behaviours and processes must drive change. We all need to work together to find ways of managing single use plastics out of the system.”
Vanden Recycling would like to help retailers by bringing their recycling expertise into the packaging design process.
“The momentum for change and improvements in recycling is stronger now than we have ever experienced. It is essential that we get this right, right now,” said David Wilson.
So, what does ‘right’ from a plastic recycling perspective look like?
The following elements are key:
1. Design for recyclability – too much plastic packaging is difficult to recycle, for example vacuum packed meat trays with multi-layers of different plastic types. The cost to recycle these is more than the market will pay. This makes them unsustainable and so we should render them obsolete.
2. Aim to make it easy – if packaging designers, retailers and manufacturers designed for ease of recycling, reprocessing costs would reduce, quality would improve, and demand would increase. This would make it an easier decision to invest in UK reprocessing infrastructure.
3. Be realistic about price – understand that the lowest cost recycling solution could have the highest environmental impacts. By actively supporting innovation and UK recycling, longer term costs and impacts will improve.
4. Don’t do this alone – UK recyclers and the design community need to work more closely with retailers to help make the right changes, so that recycling is both technically and economically viable for all.
“The UK has the recycling infrastructure in place to deal with plastic that can be recycled, the problem is managing difficult to recycle packaging that is not wanted anywhere around the world,” explained David Wilson.
“When Iceland managing director Richard Walker said that recycling plastic was not enough, that it was just recycling the problem3, he was partially right,” said David Wilson.
“Trying to recycle the unrecyclable is the problem. Making recycling simple is the answer.”
Vanden’s Peterborough recycling plant processes over 30 tonnes of recovered plastic each day.
Vanden are plastic experts and take pride in helping people to recycle easily and with minimal hassle. While predominantly working with manufacturers and suppliers, the company can take this understanding and use it to inform the consumer processes.
“We are always happy to partner with retailers to help find the best solution, both technically and economically,” said David Wilson.
“By working together, we can solve this problem. Starting today.”

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