Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mars and Mondelēz propel UK flexible plastic recycling with new fund
28 May 2021 --- Producer compliance scheme Ecosurety and environmental charity Hubbub are launching The Flexible Plastic Fund, a UK industry initiative aimed at making flexible plastic recycling economically viable for recyclers and easier for consumers.
The Fund has already received £1 million (approximately US$1.4 million) in backing from Mars UK, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever.
The Fund intends to improve flexible plastic recycling and reduce plastic pollution by giving the material a stable value, which will, in turn, increase the supply of recycled plastic and meet the forthcoming UK plastic packaging tax requirements.
Talking to PackagingInsights, Hubbub UK CEO and founder Trewin Restorick explains the current issues with recycling infrastructure.
“At present, large businesses using packaging must buy Packaging Recovery Notes (PRN), which are created by recyclers accredited with the Environment Agency when they recycle a specific material.”
“Historically, recycling flexible plastic has not been considered a priority as the technology and PRN value have not made it economical.”
“The Flexible Plastic Fund is directly addressing this challenge by creating a new minimum price for flexible plastic PRNs to make recycling this challenging material economically viable.”
The flexible plastics problem
Historically, flexible plastics have not commonly been collected or recycled and typically end up in general household waste. Only 16 percent of councils currently collect this material, explains Restorick.
“In 2019, flexible plastic represented 22 percent of all UK consumer plastic packaging, but only 6 percent was recycled. The Fund is designed to help change this.”
“Flexible plastic is, by its very nature, a challenging material to recycle – far more challenging than, say, plastic bottles.”
“However, the PRN price does not reflect the extra technical challenges, for example, separating different polymers and laminates, rendering much of this material uneconomic to reprocess.”
Research from the University of Sheffield, UK, suggests there is strong consumer demand for recycling flexible plastic, with 95 percent of participants saying they would be willing to recycle their flexible plastics.
Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have already signed up to support the initiative by hosting flexible plastic collection points in selected stores across the UK.
Stabilizing PRN pricing
The Fund will guarantee a minimum floor price of £100 (US$141) per ton for each PRN of recycled product generated by flexible plastic to incentivize recyclers to process the material.
The Fund pays for the PRN only when the final product has been produced rather than based on the recyclate collected, explains Restorick.
Furthermore, evidence that the output comes from post-consumer flexible plastic collected by a retailer will have to be provided.
Restorick says this provides an incentive for the material to be collected carefully and recycled into the highest possible grade of material.
“To nurture a circular system for flexible plastic, the Fund has a pricing hierarchy that attaches a higher value to material made into food-grade plastic compared to material made into non-packaging plastic products.”
This system is designed to avoid the current volatility in PRN pricing. For example, in 2020, the PRN price for plastic (including flexible plastics) varied between £8 (US$11) – £250 (US$354) per ton.
“The Fund will remove the extreme downward swings in volatility by guaranteeing a minimum tonnage price of £100 (US$141) for non-food grade plastic PRNs, £200 (US$282) for plastic packaging (non-food grade) PRNs and £300 (US$424) for food-grade plastic packaging PRNs,” says Restorick.
Developing national infrastructure
Robbie Staniforth, head of innovation and policy at Ecosurety, tells PackagingInsights that the Fund’s longer vision will encourage more recycling infrastructure and job creation in the UK by limiting the amount of recycling that can be exported for processing in Europe.
“The Fund is focused on where the recycling occurs and what the recycled materials are turned into, which should drive new recycling technology in the UK to ensure flexible plastic is recognized as a valuable material that can be recycled over and over again,” he asserts.
“By making flexible plastic recycling economically viable, recyclers will be motivated to invest in suitable infrastructure and green jobs in the UK.”
“By creating a sustainable market for flexible plastic, longer-term improvements can be made to ensure the flexible plastic that remains necessary for packaging is reliably recycled in the UK and eventually contributes to a circular economy, thereby tackling plastic pollution.”
“With Extended Producer Responsibility and the Plastic Tax on the horizon, packaging manufacturers are recognizing the need to start taking action sooner rather than later so that UK recycling infrastructure could be readied in time.”
Staniforth says that while it is difficult to put precise figures on the Fund’s potential environmental impact, recycling one ton of plastic bottles saves 1.5 tons of carbon emissions, so there will be net savings as more material is recycled.
“With 80 percent of the Fund supporting recycling in the UK, rising to 100 percent by 2023 – the Fund’s focus on UK-based recycling will both reduce transportation emissions involved in recycling and improve overall recycling efficiency.”
With the progress being made in advanced recycling technologies, schemes making appropriate infrastructure accessible will be key in realizing a circular economy, he asserts.
“A fully closed-loop system is a key Flexible Plastic Fund ambition, and this technology is in development. It is now possible to chemically reprocess plastic film so it can be made into a food-grade film, which means it can be recycled over and over again, reducing industry demand for virgin plastic and its accompanying emissions.”
“The UK now needs time to catch up with other markets and transition to develop its infrastructure to be able to recycle the UK’s flexible plastic waste within the UK.”
By Louis Gore-Langton
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