Unilever unveils 'detectable and recyclable' black plastic packaging

Consumer goods giant Unilever has today (17 May) unveiled a new pigment which makes black plastics detectable by recycling equipment, as it strives to boost the recyclability of its packaging portfolio.

The innovative material will be phased in across Unilever's TRESemme and Lynx brands by the end of the year

The innovative material will be phased in across Unilever's TRESemme and Lynx brands by the end of the year

Black plastic packaging is not recyclable through kerbside collections in the UK, or in most other European nations, as its carbon content prevents it from being detected by the infra-red sorting systems used in reprocessing facilities.

In a bid to overcome this recycling challenge, Unilever collaborated with RECOUP, WRAP and waste management giants Veolia, SUEZ, Viridor and TOMRA to develop a plastics colouring solution with a lower carbon content.

After a series of tests proved that the solution made black plastics detectable in existing recycling plants, Unilever this week confirmed plans to begin switching its TRESemmé and Lynx packaging to the material before the end of 2019. The company claims that the move will divert up to 2,500 tonnes of black plastic from landfill and incineration every year, once the switch is complete.

Unilever will also begin to purchase recycled black plastic streams and has pledged to ensure that its Lynx and TRESemme packaging is made using 30% post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics by the end of the year.

Unilever’s general manager for the UK & Ireland, Sebastian Munden, said the Anglo-Dutch multinational had been working on the solution “for quite some time”.

“Unilever has committed to ensuring that, globally, all of our plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and to using more recycled plastic content in our packaging,” Munden said.

“For the UK & Ireland, we want to significantly accelerate this, and we’re proud that our innovation will help us towards achieving our aim, as well as making a significant contribution towards the UK Plastics Pact targets.”

Unilever's chief R&D officer David Blanchard recently spoke exclusively to edie about the company’s three-pillar approach to improving the recyclability of its product packaging, focusing on "less", "better" and "no plastics" solutions. You can read that interview in full here.

Fade to black (plastics)

Overall, the UK is estimated to send more than one million tonnes of black plastics to landfill every year – largely because most Material Recycling Facilities (MRF’s) view them as contaminants which are expensive to recycle.

In a bid to tackle the issue, several companies have taken moves to address this recyclability gap in recent times, with supermarkets such as LidlWaitrose & Partners and Aldi removing it from their ranges, and others choosing to invest in technologies which either boost the detection capabilities of existing infrastructure or strip the plastic of its carbon pigment – as Unilever has done.

Unilever’s announcement comes shortly after rival Henkel revealed plans to add a similar, carbon-free black plastic to its packaging. The material, developed by plastics colouring technology firm Ampacet, will initially be used to make containers for toilet cleaners sold in Germany, before being added to other packaging lines later this year.

In the fast-moving consumer goods sector, the first brand to use "detectable" black plastic was gourmet dairy brand The Collective. The lids of its yoghurt pots were switched last September from traditional black plastic to Colour Tone Masterbatch, which are "seen" by near-infra-red scanners as green. 

Sarah George



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