Sainsbury's rolls out flexible plastic take-back and recycling scheme

Sainsbury's has begun collecting hard-to-recycle flexible plastic film at 63 of its stores and will use the material to trial an innovative new recycling process.

More than 215 billion pieces of flexible plastic packaging are put on the UK market every year, a recent study concluded 

More than 215 billion pieces of flexible plastic packaging are put on the UK market every year, a recent study concluded 

The scheme will enable customers in the North East of England to recycle polypropylene (PP) film, which is found on many popular supermarket items but is not recycled at kerbside by most local authorities in England. PP film is commonly used to make carrier bags and packaging for products like bread, cereal, biscuits, cakes, cheese and frozen foods.

Sainsbury’s has not disclosed how, exactly, it is recycling the collected PP, or whether it has partnered with a solutions provider or developed the method in-house. It plans to reveal further details once the trial is complete. If it is successful – i.e. there is good customer uptake and the recycled content produced is high-quality – it will be rolled out to all Sainsbury’s stores by the end of 2021.

The supermarket is notably striving to halve its plastic use by 2025 but said in a statement that flexible films are often one of the harder formats to lightweight or remove. “Until a sustainable alternative is developed to replace PP film, it continues to be the most appropriate material used to package food, and to keep products fresh,” Sainsbury’s said in a statement. This is why recyclability is particularly important to the firm here.

Sainsbury’s wider plastics strategy is aligned with WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact.

WRAP’s head of business collaboration Dr David Moon said: “We need all supermarkets to collect all plastic films, adopt consistent messaging and share their insights to make this work. WRAP urges other retailers to ensure that flexible plastic packaging can be easily collected for recycling throughout the UK.”

Flexible Packaging Consortium

Separately, the Flexible Packaging Consortium has this week released a report summarising its work to date and its recommendations for increasing flexible packaging recycling in the UK. The Consortium was formed 18 months ago and includes Ella’s Kitchen, Mars, Nestlé and Taylors of Harrogate, along with waste and recycling firm SUEZ.

The new report reveals that some 215 billion pieces of flexible plastic packaging are placed on the UK market every year and that almost all of this material is sent to landfill or incineration because fewer than one-fifth of local authorities have the capacity to collect from homes and businesses at kerbside.

It outlines how the creation of a deposit return scheme (DRS) for flexible plastics – like the one currently under development for beverage packaging – could help reduce collection costs, improve material quality and scale up investment in recycling infrastructure, if paired with changes to the extended producer responsibility (EPR) system and a unified requirement for core materials collected for recycling.

These changes have already been floated by the UK Government through the Resources and Waste Strategy. Like many green policy frameworks, however, consultations on the Strategy faced Covid-19-related delays. Discussions due to have taken place in 2020 are now diarised for this year. The Government is still hoping to implement new policies to the original timelines.

“This report is a significant milestone in our shared aim to make it easier for households to recycle their flexible plastics,” Taylors of Harrogate’s product sustainability specialist Kathryn Patchett said.

“At Taylors, we’re working hard on the sustainability of every aspect of our products and packaging, from the inside out, but it’s only by collaborating across the value chain that we can have a real impact on the potential to recycle these trickier materials.”

Sarah George



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