Sainsbury’s to remove black plastic packaging by March 2020

Black plastic is widely regarded as hard-to-recycle

As a first step towards its new black plastics target, Sainsbury’s will remove the material from its own-brand fresh food lines by the end of 2019, with packaging for frozen and ambient goods set to be switched in the first quarter of 2020. The packaging will be replaced with either clear or light coloured plastic, or bio-based alternatives, depending on the product.  

Sainsbury’s has said it is taking the move as sorting machines typically cannot detect black plastics because of the carbon pigment, which mean they generally get sent to landfill or incineration. 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.

Black and other dark-coloured plastics which do get recycled, meanwhile, are often classed as lower-value by manufacturers, as their appearance is harder to alter.

In addition to its new black plastic commitment, Sainsbury’s has also vowed to remove all plastic packaging from its Christmas crackers this year and to remove the clear, flexible plastic film from sweetheart and savoy cabbages with immediate effect.

The retailer claims the ban on plastic packaging for the two cabbage lines will reduce its plastic footprint by 100 tonnes within the next 12 months. Overall, it is striving to remove 1,380 tonnes from its business in the same period, with other phase-outs set to include all polystyrene, all PVC plastic shrouds on clothing.

Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe said he wanted to show stakeholders that the company is “serious about reducing plastic” through the new commitments.

“For many years, Sainsbury’s has prioritised sustainability and sought innovative solutions to reduce plastic packaging and increase recycling,” he said.

“Today’s announcements show what we have already achieved and demonstrate our firm commitments for the future to make significant reductions in plastic use.”

Fade to black (plastic)

Sainsbury’s is currently striving to make all of its plastic packaging either recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025 as part of its commitment to WRAP’s UK Plastic Pact.

Shortly after joining the Pact, the company collaborated with rivals Tesco and Marks & Spencer (M&S), as well as recycling and packaging production firm Viridor, to introduce a solution for hard-to-recycle black plastic that places recycled content into food-grade packaging.

The solution enables machinery in recycling plants to accurately detect the black pigment in hard-to-recycle packaging items such as food trays and separates them for shredding, melting and re-use in new packaging; a feat which had not previously been achieved at the UK’s waste processing facilities. Since June 2018, 120 tonnes of black plastics have been recycled every month using the method.

Given the challenges with recycling black plastic, the three supermarkets are not alone in choosing to phase it out and invest in closed-loop solutions. Waitrose & Partners, for example, has committed to removing all black plastics form its own-brand lines by the end of the year, and is investing in innovative bio-based alternatives as it makes the transition. The likes of AldiLidl and Quorn have also publicly announced plans to phase-out or reduce black plastic use in recent months.

Sarah George

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