To improve the flexible plastic packaging recycling system, UK circular economy charity WRAP says the material needs strong and stable end markets


Shopping bags are typically made from flexible plastic packaging (Credit: Pixabay)

Cross-sector action is urgently required to develop a recycling system for soft flexible plastic packaging — such as plastic bags and wrapping — according to circular economy charity WRAP.

It comes as the sustainability not-for-profit, which leads the UK Plastics Pact, publishes a roadmap designed to galvanise action across the plastics supply chain.

Accounting for around 85% of plastic packaging on UK supermarket shelves, UK Plastics Pact members are working towards all plastic packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 and increasing the amount that gets recycled to 70%.

Although flexible plastic constitutes a quarter of all UK consumer plastic packaging by weight, few local authorities collect the material, resulting in only 4% being recycled.

WRAP UK director Peter Maddox said: “Developing a recycling system for flexible plastics is undoubtedly the biggest challenge that we and our UK Plastics Pact members face in order to meet the Pact’s targets by 2025.

“Citizens are frustrated by flexible plastics because our household bins are full of them, and they are a highly visible pollutant which are easily blown into waterways and hedgerows.

“Our starting point will always be to identify where our members can remove unnecessary plastic packaging.

“But where flexible plastic packaging serves an important purpose, such as preserving food or for hygiene reasons, it is imperative that we have the means to recycle it.

“This will require significant investment and innovation across the entire supply chain.

“It’s a tall order and we’re at the start of a challenging journey, but our members are fully behind the ambition we have set out in the roadmap, and together we are tackling it head-on.”


Areas which WRAP says need to be targeted to develop a flexible plastic packaging recycling system

WRAP’s roadmap to a flexible plastic packaging recycling system sets out some key areas that need to be focused on.

Firstly it says packaging design needs to be simplified to make it easier to recycle, also stating that the industry needs to capitalise on front-of-store collection points already provided by many supermarkets.

Longer-term, the organisation believes implementing collection directly from households across all local authority areas is necessary, with investment in sorting and reprocessing capacity capabilities needed to do so.

It also says that the industry needs to ensure that recycling flexible plastic packaging has strong and stable end markets.

Positive recycling infrastructure development for flexible plastics packaging is already underway in some parts of the industry.

UK Plastics Pact member and recycling company Jayplas, for example, has opened a new facility earlier this year that’s capable of recycling 80,000 tonnes of plastic bags and wrappers a year.

Jayplas operations director Mike Maxwell said: “Increasing UK infrastructure for the recycling of flexible plastics makes absolute sense for the environment and the economy.

“Through investing in new capacity we are preventing thousands of tonnes of plastics from being shipped abroad, which keeps that material in the UK economy and creates local jobs.

“There is still a lot more to be done to create a circular economy for flexible plastic packaging, but we are committed to leading the way and will continue to invest in this crucial area.”

UK environment minister Rebecca Pow added: “Now more than ever, it is vital we push forwards in our efforts to clamp down on plastic waste and rely more on reusable and recyclable materials.

“We are bringing forward ground-breaking initiatives to deliver this, ranging from an extended producer responsibility scheme to a new world-leading tax for firms, which produce or import plastic packaging that does not have at least 30% recycled material.

“In combination with this roadmap, we can make positive steps forwards to create a more sustainable and environmentally friendly packaging industry.”

flexible plastic recycling
As far as possible, mono-materials — products that only consist of one material — should be used (Credit: Pixabay)

Alongside the action areas highlighted in the roadmap, WRAP has also outlined some practical steps that need to be taken to create a circular economy for flexible packaging.

It first believes that all flexible plastic packaging needs to be designed for mechanical recycling where functionality can be achieved, or otherwise compatible with non-mechanical recycling.

To achieve this, UK Plastics Pact members need to review their flexible plastic packaging and move to mono-materials — products that consist of one material or fibre, instead of a blend — as far as possible.

This would be done in alignment with CEFLEX’s — a European consortium of businesses looking to create a circular economy for flexible plastics — Designing for a Circular Economy guidelines.

By the end of 2020, CEFLEX is expected to have published complete design guidelines for mechanical recycling.

In the summer of 2021, UK Plastics Pact members should review their portfolios following the CEFLEX mechanical recycling guidelines as far as possible.

Following these reviews, all Pact members should have aligned their flexible plastic packaging portfolios to industry-agreed guidelines, completing this by the end of 2023.


How UK Plastics Pact members are looking to improve flexible plastic collection

WRAP and the UK Plastics Pact are also looking to make sure all plastic packaging is collected for recycling, establishing and publicising front-of-store (FOS) flexible plastic collection points as an interim solution.

Currently, WRAP is conducting consumer research to identify the most effective messaging to encourage consumers to recycle flexible plastic packaging at FOS collection points.

To aid this, stores will provide WRAP with data on the location of FOS collection points for input into the Recycle Now recycling locator.

Alongside this, the UK Plastics Pact and the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) organisation are collaborating to align and design guidance for on-pack labelling.

flexible plastic recycling
WRAP and the UK Plastics Pact are looking to establish front-of-store flexible plastic collection services outside supermarkets (Credit: Pixabay)

By December 2020, WRAP and the UK Plastics Pact will have undertaken a review of existing kerbside collections to identify current and good practices.

At the same time, they will look to develop guidance for supermarkets to implement and promote FOS collection points, which should take as a minimum all polyethylene films.

In the following spring, WRAP will extensively promote the FOS network through its Recycle Now campaign — developing best practice guidance on kerbside collection and communications by the end of 2021.

By October 2022, it’s aiming to have collected 10% of flexible plastic placed on the market by tonnage at FOS collection points — with the ultimate goal of giving all householders access to flexible plastic packaging recycling.


How the UK Plastics Pact is looking to improve flexible plastic end markets

Since 2019, WRAP and the UK Plastics Pact have been evaluating the commercial, technical and environmental viability of non-mechanical recycling of flexible plastic packaging.

As part of this work, UK Plastics Pact members have specified the use of recycling flexible plastic packaging wherever possible, and are currently evaluating existing sorting technology and sharing knowledge on the best in class equipment.

By the summer of 2020, material recycling facilities (MRFs) will have provided information on their current sorting capabilities.

In October of 2020, they’re looking to identify key opportunities for end markets and develop an action plan to take them forward.

By December 2020, they intend to set up a non-mechanical collaborative action group under the UK Plastics Pact, which will gather evidence to support the classification of this process as “recycling”.

In the following spring, they’re aiming to conduct an investment review to better understand the necessary infrastructure needs for UK MRFs and reprocessing requirements.

As a result of this, WRAP and the UK Plastics Pact are looking to significantly increase the UK’s flexible plastic packaging recycling capacity.

It is also aiming to provide clarity on the role of non-mechanical recycling, develop stable end-markets for flexible plastics, and incorporate recycled content in food-grade flexible plastic packaging in practice.