WRAP tells councils to view black trays as ‘rubbish’

WRAP has today (March 9) given general advice to local authorities to add black plastic to their ‘not recycled’ list unless council contractors say otherwise, and consider the material ‘rubbish’.

The charity has also claimed that most of the black plastic packaging currently collected is not recycled.

Research has been conducted into the feasibility of collecting and reprocessing black CPET trays

The ‘not recycled’ conclusion on black plastics – primarily trays – comes in the latest update of WRAP’s standardised recycling guidelines issued today (9 March).

The advice follows the conclusion of a trial to encourage the use of ‘detectable’ black plastic packaging using a special colourant which is detectable to infra-red sorting systems in MRFs.


At present black plastic packaging – usually in the form of ready meal trays – is coloured using carbon black pigments, which do not enable the pack to be sorted by the existing optical sorting systems used widely in plastics recycling as the black pigment reflects little or no light.

The WRAP trial, which was first publicised in 2011, included work with retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s to distribute black CPET with a ‘detectable’ additive that could then be collected, sorted and recovered for use again as food-grade plastic trays.

In 2015, WRAP said that the trial had been a success “in proving the recycling potential for black CPET should help to drive further work to enhance this opportunity.”

As a result, black trays had been omitted from the first edition of the Recycling Guidelines, published in October (see letsrecycle.com story) while WRAP consulted with brands, retailers and manufacturers over the adoption of the fluorescent ink marking system to boost recyclability.


However, retailers and manufacturers have failed to be convinced of a need to replace traditional black trays with the detectable material. According to WRAP this is due to the cost associated with adding the detectable pigment to black trays – this is thought to cost less than 0.5 pence per item.

Consequently, in the latest version of the guidance published today, WRAP has advised local authorities to include black plastic among the items considered as ‘general rubbish’. The guidance states: “Sorting equipment cannot detect the colour black and therefore it is not recycled.”


In a bulletin sent to local authorities today, WRAP added: “The challenges around recycling black plastic packaging are long-standing and well documented. As it stands, while solutions exist to detect and sort black plastics from the plastic packaging stream, these have not been widely adopted by industry (largely due to cost). Therefore most of the black plastic packaging currently collected is not recycled.

“Supermarkets are aware of this issue and have worked closely with WRAP on minimising the environmental impact of packaging under a series of voluntary agreements known as the Courtauld Commitment.”


“WRAP’s advice to local authorities is to first check with their processor if black plastic is being recycled and how. If it’s not, WRAP advises local authorities to update their householder communications with black plastics in the ‘not recycled’ lists, and the Recycling Guidelines have been updated accordingly. Guidelines for garden waste have also been added.”

Talks to try and find a way forward between recycling and waste management firms, packaging producers, retailers and the plastics industry over the future of black packaging are continuing, with the recycling body Recoup having convened discussions over the issue this week.

The topic has already featured in the national press and is expected to be discussed on BBC1’s the One Show next week.


The packaging trade association Incpen is among those involved in the discussions over black trays.

Commenting on the issue to letsrecycle.com, the organisation’s director Jane Bickerstaffe said that the problem revolved around the public expecting everything to be recycled. She said: “The issue is that some things can’t be recycled but we have people in a mindset now where they think everything should be recycled and it is seen as a negative if it is not recycled.

“Industry is aware of criticism over black trays. Companies are looking at putting a pigment in the trays and more advanced sorting equipment is also needed. But, there is no guarantee they would be sorted if they made the investment in putting the pigment in.”

Peter Atterby, managing director of the plastics compounder Luxus, which has recently acquired Colour Tone Masterbatch – which produces the additive that required to make the black pigment detectable – described the latest guidance as a ‘setback’ and claimed that more than 1 billion trays are landfilled or sent for energy recovery annually.

He added: “We have been training people to recycle for many years, but now we have said that we don’t want black products. Effectively what this means is that more products will continue to go to landfill.”

Black plastic is particularly prevalent in ready meal packaging. (Picture: Shutterstock)


The British Retail Consortium claimed that new end markets need to be developed for recycled black plastic. A spokesperson for the organisation, said: “Supermarkets are aware of this issue and have worked closely with WRAP on minimising the environmental impact of packaging under a series of voluntary agreements known as the Courtauld Commitment. Retailers were involved in a recent trial of food trays with slightly different pigment (which still appears to be black) which can be identified by optical sensors at sorting plants. This trial demonstrated that these new trays could be recycled.

“In addition to sorting, we also need to identify end markets for recycled black plastic.”

Subscribe for free

Subscribe to receive our newsletters and to leave comments.

The Blog Box

Other Publications from
The Environment Media Group

Back to top