Tesco to roll out UK-wide flexible plastic recycling scheme

Tesco has begun introducing permanent in-store recycling points for soft and flexible plastics, which typically are not collected by councils, and is hoping to host them in all large UK stores.

Once the roll-out is complete, Tesco believes it will host the UK's largest in-store recycling network for soft plastics

Once the roll-out is complete, Tesco believes it will host the UK's largest in-store recycling network for soft plastics

From today (10 March), the recycling points will be introduced to 171 large Tesco stores across Wales and the South West of England. Shoppers will be encouraged to deposit soft and flexile plastics including cling film, baby food and pet food pouches, crisp packets and salad bags.

Once collected, the plastics will be washed, sorted and recycled in specialist infrastructure. Tesco will use a combination of mechanical and chemical recycling approaches to process the material, including those offered by Recycling Technologies, which the supermarket has previously supported. Plastic recycled chemically will be suitable for use in food, which the mechanically recycled content can be used in non-food-grade applications like household and beauty products. 

The launch of take-back points across 171 stores follows a successful trial across ten stores last year, in which customers returned more than ten times the expected amount of plastic. The collected material was used to make food-grade packaging for Tesco own-brand cheeses.

Tesco is hoping to eventually host a collection point in all of its large UK stores, which would make it the largest network of recycling points for this type of plastic. Once this toll-out is complete, it believes it will collect and recycle some 1,000 tonnes of soft plastics each year.

“It is an absolute priority to remove and reduce as much plastic as possible and ensure everything we use is recycled and kept out of the environment,” Tesco’s director of quality Sarah Bradbury said, alluding to the company’s overarching ‘4 Rs’ plastics strategy.

“Where plastic serves an important purpose such as reducing food waste, these new recycling points make sure that every piece can be easily recycled. Trials have shown they are popular with customers, so we believe rolling them out at scale will have a real impact.”

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.

A plastic problem

Almost all flexible plastic packaging sold in the UK 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, according to the Flexible Packaging Consortium.

Challenges include a lack of appropriate infrastructure to process the plastic, because soft plastic is notoriously challenging to process mechanically, and poor financial models. As flexible plastic is so light, it is often more costly to recycle than to incinerate or send to landfill.

As such, many businesses have moved to reduce the amount of flexible packaging they produce. Firms including Heinz, Tesco, Aldi and Waitrose & Partners are transitioning away from flexible plastic on tin multipacks, for example, and beverage giants like Heineken and Diageo are removing plastic six-pack rings. The biggest policy mandate in this space is the charge for plastic carrier bags.

Despite these efforts, some 215 billion pieces of flexible plastic packaging are placed on the UK market every year. Many businesses claim they are essential to prolonging shelf life, preventing food waste or ensuring product accessibility. It is clear that recycling will form part of the solution.

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. 

Join the conversation with edie's Circular Economy Inspiration Sessions

On 25 March, as part of its special Circular Economy Week of online content and events, edie is hosting three live, interactive webinar presentations and discussions – all dedicated to accelerating the transition to a zero-waste economy. 

Called the Circular Economy Inspiration Sessions, the three events, range from Q&A style debates with circular economy experts, business-led panel discussions and a masterclass. Experts from organisations including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and The Body Shop are taking part. 

For full details and to register, click here. 

Sarah George


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