Soft plastic: the challenge and the solution

refuse collection

Alongside the plastics tax and proposed EPR regulations, kerbside soft-plastics recycling is something the industry desperately wants to see, Chris Elliot says. He explores how close we are to achieving this?

Soft plastic is one of the biggest technical challenges in the resources and waste sector. It’s ubiquitous in food packaging, used in everything from bread to salad to chocolate bars, and for good reason: soft plastic helps food stay fresher for longer, is lightweight and easy to transport, and lets us import food from all around the world.

But there is a problem with this versatile material: it’s very difficult to recycle. In fact, soft plastic – or flexible plastic, as it’s sometimes known – is one of the biggest challenges faced by the waste industry today.

Most householders simply drop it in their recycling bins when they are done, unaware that the vast majority of local authorities don’t actually accept it because they can’t currently recycle it. But this is set to change.

The government wants to see the recycling of plastic film – including plastic carrier bags – increase and has set out plans to have soft plastic included in the waste stream for kerbside pick-up. Defra has consulted the resources and waste sector on a phased introduction, with an “end date for transition” of the financial year 2026/27.

We have received a clear message from industry that early signalling of the intent to require the collection of plastic film.

A Defra spokesman told Circular: “We have received a clear message from industry that early signalling of the intent to require the collection of plastic film and flexible packaging for recycling is necessary to stimulate the investment needed in UK recycling infrastructure.”

That investment has been kick-started by the launch, in May, of a Defra-backed, industry-led project called FlexCollect – a three-year scheme that will pilot kerbside collecting and recycling of plastic film and packaging.

As well as government funding, money is being pumped into the project by the Flexible Plastic Fund, set up a year ago by five giant food firms and since expanded by the addition of 15 other UK consumer goods manufacturers. Financial support is being provided by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), while in-kind support is coming from environmental organisations Ecosurety, Recoup, Suez Recycling & Recovery UK, and WRAP.

A spokesperson for UKRI told us: “In 2020, flexible plastic packaging represented 22% of all UK consumer plastic packaging. However, only around 8% of this material was recovered for recycling.

Plastic

“One of the key barriers to improving the recycling rate is establishing effective methods of collecting waste film from householders. As a low-value and low-density material, it is costly to recover. Other challenging factors include higher levels of food contamination on waste packaging, and the technical challenges associated with sorting, including the variety of plastic polymer types, colours, and multiple material layers.”

As Circular has reported, supermarkets are currently at the forefront of soft plastic collections. Sainsbury’s, for example, has trialled a system at more than 60 of its stores where customers can return plastic packaging. It has now extended this to all of its branches.

“It enables customers to bring back any flexible plastic packaging, including crisp packets, food pouches, salad bags, and biscuit and cake wrappers,” a spokeswoman for the company told us.

“The recycling of soft plastics then takes place in Europe, where it is sorted and recycled for use in manufacturing items such as carrier bags, including ‘Bags for Life’, multi-pack packaging, pallet shrink wrapping, delivery bags, refuse sacks, and rigid products, such as buckets, storage boxes and bins. We have a target to reduce our use of plastic packaging for products by 50% by 2025.”

There has been controversy over where some of the waste collected from supermarkets has ended up. An investigation by BBC Panorama found some soft plastic had been shipped abroad by waste firms, but had then been burnt outdoors – a situation of which store bosses insisted they were completely unaware.

Many supermarkets pass on their customers’ returned soft plastic packaging to Jayplas, which operates eight processing plants in locations around the UK. A spokesperson for the organisation said: ‘The plastic arrives in bales from retailers, typically weighing 250-500kg each. The processing of this material involves optical sorting, followed by washing and then extrusion.

Flexible plastics can be made into single polymer granules and used as a feedstock for the manufacture of new products.

“Flexible plastics can be made into single polymer granules and used as a feedstock for the manufacture of new products. Low-density polyethylene can be manufactured into film applications, such as refuse sacks and recycling bags.

“Polypropylene is processed into granules and they are used for injection-moulding applications, such as the manufacture of coat hangers, crates, buckets, plant pots, and so on.

“We are currently collecting through UK retailers and are already seeing increases in volumes, so we’re building up our manufacturing capacity to accommodate that.”

One local council that has taken the plunge and begun kerbside collecting is East Dunbartonshire, which covers parts of Glasgow. As well as the usual plastic, such as shampoo, detergent and drinks bottles, residents can now put carrier bags, bread bags and vegetable bags in their brown bins, provided they are empty and washed.

Soft Plastic

A local authority spokeswoman explained: “We have been able to accept additional plastics at the kerbside since the end of March, and the response we have had from residents has been very positive indeed, both on the doorstep and via our social media and customer service channels.”

It’s early days for the large-scale recycling of household flexible plastics and the sector is still very much evolving on this issue – learning about collection, sorting, reprocessing, and end-market issues. Early trials largely failed because of contamination issues and the fact that better-quality waste material was available elsewhere.

Consumer pressure and the Plastics Packaging Tax have certainly changed the dynamic, but there are massive challenges to overcome. The learning opportunities are there to be had and will pay dividends in time.

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