Solving the soft plastics conundrum
In recycling terms, air cushion packaging films are known as soft plastics aka flexible plastics, like carrier bags, cling film, fruit & vegetable bags. They represent c. 1/4 of UK consumer plastic packaging - c. 215 billion pieces a year. So stopping this material at source, and/ or solving how it ends up, is very important. But before talking solutions, why is it so widespread...
Why Soft Plastics? :)
- Resource efficient. It uses far less energy & water to manufacture compared to paper equivalents. And it's often made using a waste byproduct from refining oil, which would otherwise remain as waste.
- Operationally efficient. It's far lighter and space efficient than other materials, needing significantly less transport and storage.
- Effective. e.g. its material properties are the best for reducing food waste. If food waste was a country, it would be the world's 3rd largest carbon emitter after China & USA.
Why Not Soft Plastics? :(
In 2020, only c. 6% was recycled, according to Wrap.org.uk. Some big reasons are;
- its design or blend being non-recyclable. e.g. many so-called bio-degradable films (for more, see FGP's Greenwashing Blogs) have additives which corrupt the recycle stream. Another example is waste sorting systems can’t recognize black pigments.
- how easy it can find its way in to nature
- consumer behaviour
But the main one is;
- lack of recycling infrastructure - only a fifth of local authorities collect and recycle soft plastics curbside from homes and businesses. Likewise, more separated collection points are needed in public places.
The Circular Rev-Solution
Fortunately, government policy, investments, technical advances & consumer demand means it's becoming more viable and easier to recycle soft plastics. (See end of article for more details on the UKRI Fund, the Governments Resources & Waste Strategy, and FGP's Consumer Demand blogs).
The fruits of this activity are many new recycling collection points at supermarkets. They help consumers reduce landfill and incineration, and provide producers raw material for new products. This linking consumption back to production supports a circular economy, and FGP contribute with our Free Waste Collection service.
Supermarket Sweep - nearly all 'take back' and recycle
2021 has seen 1000's of new soft plastic, aka flexible plastic, waste collections at supermarkets
Supermarkets are racing to extol their environmental virtues, and sustainability credentials. Soft plastic collection points are being rolled at most of their locations. As of August '21;
- Tesco -171, all nationwide planned, to collect c. 1,000 tons a year. For more, see Collection Points in the Supermarket - Das Premium-Themenportal für Konsumgüter, FMCG, Handel und Verpackung (packaging-360.com) Or Tesco to roll out UK-wide flexible plastic recycling scheme (edie.net)
- Sainsburys - all 520 shops. For more, see Helping our customers to recycle flexible plastics – Sainsbury's (sainsburys.co.uk) or Sainsbury's rolls out flexible plastic recycling scheme nationwide (edie.net)
- Co Op - 1500, 2300 by Nov '21. For more, see Co-op set to expand flexible plastic recycling scheme to 1,500 stores this month (edie.net) or Co-op to launch in-store recycling scheme for flexible plastics (packagingnews.co.uk)
- Aldi - 20, 900+ planned. For more, see Aldi launches in-store recycling scheme for problem plastics (edie.net)
- Waitrose - 37, 332 planned. Waitrose trials hard-to-recycle flexible plastic packaging return scheme | Retail Bulletin (theretailbulletin.com)
Forever Green Packaging
If sustainability is about what’s taken out and put back in, it’s important to consider the whole production and consumption loop. How it's made, how it's used, how it ends up, and its potential knock on effects on future carbon usage. For instance, a different protective packaging material in isolation may seem greener, but might be less effective protecting products. More damages mean more waste, more production, more people & time, and more transport & materials - a rise in inefficiency. FGP aims to continue learning about the bigger picture, understanding the pros & cons of all packaging. Where we see cons, such as hard to recycle materials, FGP's Shop offers our Free Waste Collection service. This ensures 100% of the returned waste gets recycled in to new products. Further to the many supermarket locations, we're glad to add another recycling option for consumer ease. FGP also respect customer choice, as what's right for one might not be right for all. Customers are presented different options, which we believe have environmental credentials, and help them make an informed agenda-free choice. FGP don't claim to offer perfect 100% sustainable solutions, as no packaging can, but we do believe our products and services are as close as you can get. We're forever learning from manufacturers, customers, and the sustainable communities we're a part of. Feel free to reach out to us. We're open and keen to talk to like-minded environmentalists.
Recycling Infrastructure Improvements
The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is investing £20 million in four cutting edge recycling plants to reduce landfill & incineration, recycle waste in to new sustainable plastics and expand the range of plastics. For more, see UKRI funding puts UK at the forefront of plastic recycling – UKRI
Likewise, the government sets out a long-term blueprint for waste prevention, reuse and recycling in the UK in their Resources & Waste Strategy. The 1st comprehensive update in over a decade For more, see Gove launches landmark blueprint for resources and waste - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
Soon, curbside collection for soft plastics will also be rolled out. Part of the government policy is to standardise across the UK what waste is collected curbside and subsequently recycled.
Climate Change vs Mindset Change
Helping drive these actions is consumer & citizen demand. What will make them successful, is consumer & citizen action. If we all do our bit everyday, everyone's actions will the environmental crisis.
Forever Green Owner