Manufacturing giants unite on £1m Flexible Plastic Fund

Mars UK, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever are all supporting a new £1m initiative to improve the recyclability of "flexible" plastic bags, wrappers, films, pouches, packets and sachets.

Up to 80% of collected flexible plastic will be recycled in the UK

Up to 80% of collected flexible plastic will be recycled in the UK

The businesses have joined producer compliance scheme, Ecosurety, and environmental charity Hubbub in launching the Flexible Plastic Fund. The £1m fund aims to make flexible plastic such as bags and sachets easily recyclable.

Currently, just 16% of UK local authorities offer household collection of flexible plastics, despite the items representing 22% of all consumer packaging in 2019. Of that figure, just 6% was recycled.

The main issue regarding flexible packaging is that it often contaminates rigid plastic recycling and clogs up machinery. This makes it a low-value material that often ends up in landfill.

As such, the manufacturers are mobilising the £1m fund to improve flexible plastic recycling by guaranteeing a minimum value of £100 per tonne of recycled material to incentivise the recyclers.

Hubbub’s co-founder Trewin Restorick said: “The Flexible Plastic Fund is a really important initiative to show that flexible plastics can be recycled and be financially sustainable. People are ready and willing to recycle their flexible plastics - we just have to make the infrastructure work.

“Collaboration is key to making this a success and we are urging more manufacturers to invest in the Fund, more retailers to collect flexible plastic for recycling and more recyclers to recycle flexible plastics.”

Sainsbury’s and Waitrose are two of the first retailers to join the initiative and will host flexible plastic collection points in selected stores across the UK. Several other major retailers are set to join over the coming months.

According to the organisations involved, at least 80% of the plastics collected will be recycled in the UK by 2023, due to current capacity and technology limits. As such, up to 20% could be exported across Europe to be recycled.

A Greenpeace study recently revealed that more than half of the UK’s plastic waste is being exported to Turkey and Malaysia. Once it reaches Turkey, Greenpeace claims, the majority of the plastic is not actually recycled as per the requirements of waste transfer contracts – much of it ends up in landfills, in incinerators, as litter or in illegal dumping sites. Greenpeace’s investigation of 10 sites found that they are more likely to be in low-income neighbourhoods and that many contain waste that is traceable to the UK, Germany and other developed European nations.

However, the Flexible Plastic Fund will work to deliver full traceability of exported plastics, from collection through to the creation of new products. The scheme will only pay recyclers if proof is provided. Manufacturers contributing to the fund will then be able to access the Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) generated by the scheme.

The plastic will be turned into non-food grade plastic and film and some food-grade film.

Ecosurety’s head of innovation and policy Robbie Staniforth said: “Historically the UK recycling system has not provided enough motivation to recycle flexible plastics. 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.”

“We hope that by boosting this 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.”

In March, Tesco introduced permanent in-store recycling points for soft and flexible plastics. The announcement from Tesco comes shortly after competitor Sainsbury’s began trialling an in-store take-back and recycling scheme for flexible and soft plastics at 63 shops in the North East of England.

The Flexible Packaging Consortium is urging the UK Government to use its Resources and Waste Strategy to develop a deposit return scheme (DRS) for flexible plastics, paired with changes to the extended producer responsibility (EPR) system and a unified requirement for core materials collected for recycling.

Similar recommendations have been made by the British Plastics Federation, which claims that the UK could recycle 3.5 times as much plastic in 2030 as it did in 2019 if policy changes are paired with increased investment from the public and private sectors.

Consultations on the Resources and Waste Strategy's implementation were due to begin last year but were delayed due to Covid-19 and rescheduled for 2021. 

Matt Mace



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