OPINION: Jeff Rhodes, head of environmental and external affairs at Biffa, discusses the importance of supermarkets moving away from dark coloured plastics and the need to ensure packaging is easily recyclable.
Sainsbury’s announcement that it will end the use of dark coloured plastic for chilled ready meal food trays and switch to natural (clear) by the end of 2019 and entirely by March 2020 is a welcome development in a sector that has for too long favoured form over content.
It also has the benefit of not demonising plastic, as is the current trend, but reminding us that we need to recognise and optimise the use of necessary plastic packaging, where it serves a positive role, such as protecting food to reduce food waste.
As an industry, we have known for a long time that impossible and difficult-to-recycle plastics and plastic composites need to be phased out or reduced wherever possible through eco-design. This would include plastic food trays with unnecessary black or dark colouration, but also ‘compostable’ plastics, laminated packaging film and carrier bags. Hopefully, this is the first step on the journey for retailers who can make a real difference.
The issue with black colouring is that it is impossible for optical plastic sorters to detect the trays, unlike clear or light-coloured plastics, and it needs hand sorting to separate it from the reject stream.
“Colouring needs to be considered when designing plastic packaging for recyclability, as well as polymer type and its application.”
This additional cost is only commercially viable if there is a good enough end-market for the material, but the options for black-coloured plastic are limited because demand is strongest for natural clear plastic. This is a good example of why colouring needs to be considered when designing plastic packaging for recyclability, as well as polymer type and its application.
We should also welcome Sainsbury’s move as a sensible departure from other more short-term publicity exercises with questionable long-term impacts, such as switching to alternative materials such as bioplastics, which could cause more consumer confusion, have worse lifecycle impacts or create new waste management problems.
We need to avoid these types of knee-jerk decisions taken in isolation, however well-intentioned, which can then result in undesirable unintended consequences, replacing one problem with another.
Put simply, necessary plastic packaging needs to be as recyclable as possible.
Getting rid of dark coloured plastics is a good start, but it’s not the whole of the equation. There are other factors that will make a strong contribution to a positive outcome.
Opportunities to reduce unnecessary single-use plastic can and should be taken, such as the proposed bans on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds and the plastic carrier bag charge. Similar bans or charges may also be useful for other unnecessary single-use plastic items in future.
Where non-plastic re-usable alternatives exist, such as items of crockery and cutlery, the unnecessary single-use plastic versions should be phased out. We need to simplify the range of plastics in use, cut through the confusion, make plastics more recyclable and make recycling easier.
If recycling is made difficult, it is less likely that people will do it and the results will be worse. It needs to be made easier by packaging, especially plastics, being made simpler, labelling being made clearer and recycling collections being made more consistent.
Like it or not, plastic’s durability and its recyclability make it a vital resource that should not be allowed to escape into the environment as litter or be lost to the economy.