Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Mondelēz, and Mars are among the major food companies supporting a soft plastic recycling fund to help combat plastic pollution.
Spearheaded by recycling company Ecosurety, with support from environmental charity Hubbub, the new fund is described as an industry first for the UK.
In the short term, the Flexible Plastic Fund’s ambition is to boost flexible plastic recycling in the UK and reduce plastic pollution by giving the material a stable value. In the long run, the Fund hopes to drive progress towards creating a circular, UK-based flexible plastic recycling market that allows flexible plastic recycling via household collections.
With other major outlets expected to follow suit, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have already agreed to host flexible plastic collection points in stores across the UK.
Flexible packaging, which includes plastic bags, wrapper, films, pouches, packets, and sachets is widely used by the food industry. It is convenient, cost-effective, lightweight, and is known to preserve food well.
While the packaging’s durability and ability to protect food from sunlight, temperature, and moisture means it can increase the shelf-life of perishable products, it also presents a challenge. The material is not widely recycled in the UK, in 2019 it represented 22 percent (30,000 tonnes) of all UK consumer plastic packaging, but just 6 percent was recycled.
Currently, only 16 percent of local authorities offer household collection of flexible plastic and consumers are disgruntled.
The problem lies in the way flexible plastics are processed. They must be treated in a different way to other plastics due to their unique properties. Soft plastics often contaminate rigid plastic recycling and glob up machinery.
Ecosurety’s solution is to guarantee a minimum value for soft plastics with the company arguing that plastic is a valuable resource that should be used over and over again. The Fund will guarantee a minimum value of £100 per tonne of recycled product, in order to incentivise recycler to process flexible plastic.
To kickstart the initiative, the Fund pledges to recycle 80 percent of plastics collected in the UK. While infrastructure gets up to speed, up to 20 percent could be exported to qualify facilities in Europe.
“All materials will be fully traceable and tracked from the collector through to new products,” noted Ecosurety.
A range of products can be made from these recycled plastics including non-food grade plastic, non-food grade film and food-grade film. By following this model, flexible plastic packaging can be recycled into plastic packaging, including food-grade, again and again.
“By creating a sustainable market for this material, longer-term improvements can be made to ensure the flexible plastic that remains necessary for packaging is reliably recycled and eventually contributes to a circular economy, thereby tackling plastic pollution,” said Robbie Staniforth, head of innovation and policy at Ecosurety.
“We hope that by boosting the infrastructure, government and local authorities will be motivated to quickly facilitate flexible plastic recycling in the UK by making it easy for consumers to recycle via household collections in the future.”