Beyond black plastics

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Tony Gaukroger

Last week the industry set 2018 as the deadline for the recycling of all black plastic packaging bottles, pots, tubs and trays. It was agreed by a cross-industry group that included major retailers, packaging manufacturers and trade associations, that a new ‘roadmap’ is to be put in place to achieve this goal.

Black plastic packaging contains carbon black pigments which absorb infra-red light and cannot therefore, be optically sorted by equipment using near infra-red (NIR) detection technology. The technical team at Colour Tone responded to this challenge by developing an alternative detectable pigment that enables black plastics to be visible for NIR sorting.

In the numerous materials validation trials that followed, Colour Tone has conclusively proven that this novel pigment will ensure that black trays and tubs can be easily detectable in the mixed plastics waste stream. We therefore welcome this new deadline and believe that it’s now time to move this debate beyond black plastics to consider the wider waste stream itself.

Coloured plastics recycling

Since this technology can be applied not only to black plastics, but to colours too. Dark coloured packaging can also be specified with the same NIR sorting characteristic. We are only doing half the job if we are enabling the recycling of black plastic packaging if coloured plastics cannot also be sorted.

This situation is made worse still, by the fact that black and coloured polyester (PET) is just one type of food packaging waste. Serious thought must also be given also to the many other plastics found in fast food packaging such as polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene (PE) and PVC. These are not widely recycled in practice either.

Valuable waste streams

Capturing these valuable waste streams and diverting them into efficient recovery processing is now recognised as key to saving costs and reducing environmental impacts for many businesses today. It goes without saying that packaging must therefore, be designed with ‘end of life’ considerations in mind – but why stop at just packaging alone?

It’s our belief that we should be calling for kerbside collections to include all post-consumer plastic waste for the NIR sorting of plastics. This could include household plastics such as garden furniture, washing up bowls and soap dishes for example.

Consideration, too, must be given to the recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). According to the Environment Agency ‘it’s the fastest growing waste stream in Europe growing at 3-5% each year’. Surely if WEEE recycling targets were to be increased yet further still, it would also help responsible producers stay ahead of this challenge and encourage the creation of new after markets for this resource


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