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The truth about recycling - black plastics

Week 4 Black plastic

Black plastics are an industry wide problem. We see them on our supermarket shelves as ready meals, and meat or biscuit packets. However, they have gained a lot of press in recent years over the controversy of their recycling capabilities.

The majority of black plastic packaging is coloured using carbon black pigments.  This pigment is not detectable by the optical sorting systems widely used in plastic recycling. This is because the pigment reflects little or no light. Because of this, black plastics often end up destined for landfill or incineration, even though they are ‘technically’ recyclable.

So why are black plastics still used?

Well, black plastics allow for a contrasting background, making food stand out. It is also low cost and has good masking properties, meaning off cuts can be mixed together to produce other black items.

What’s being done?

In 2011 WRAP carried out a series of trials to identify methods of recycling black plastics. Trials include the use of non-carbon pigments in manufacturing stages. By using non-carbon pigments, they found it is possible to create a material that is almost identical in colour but can be identified by sorting systems.

Unfortunately, many retailers and manufacturers have failed to be convinced of a need to make a change and replace traditional pigments with the detectable ones. According to WRAP this is because of the associated costs.

In June this year however, supermarket giants M&S, Tesco and Sainsbury’s introduced a solution for this hard to recycle plastic – using food packaging made from recycled content. Black plastic will be added to the coloured plastic stream which is made into plastic flakes and pellets, which are taken to a facility in Cambridgeshire where they transform it into new packaging solutions.  In August 2018, Aldi also announced the introduction of clear plastic trays to six of their fresh fruit and vegetable ranges which traditionally used black plastic packaging.

What can you do?

Where possible, try to avoid black plastics. If you do use black plastics, currently most of these will have to be disposed of in the general waste stream. If you are unsure, please check with your supplier who will be able to tell you whether the plastic will be picked out on a sorting line and sent for recycling. 

Conclusion

It’s not hard to see why people are confused over the end destination of their recyclables or which bin they should put the materials in. The Chief Executive of the Recycling Association explains: ‘Some people may think they should put in the recycling just incase it can be recycled and do the right thing. But often this can lead to more contamination of the materials that can genuinely be recycled’. 

Our advice would be to check before you chuck! Choose a waste provider that you can trust and will provide you with a transparent audit trail. Ask your provider where they send the materials they collect from your site and ask which bins you should use. 

 

Jessica Parrilla

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