After a study by the Local Government Association, it is suggested that of the 525,000 tonnes of plastic food packaging carefully set aside by households and sent to a local recycling centre each year, only 169,145 tonnes of this waste is actually able to be recycled.
What is Preventing 100% of Plastic being able to Be Recycled?
The molecules which make up plastic are known as polymers – and food packaging is made of various types of polymers. In a bid to reduce the piece price of food packaging, the manufacturer may use low-grade or non-recyclable polymers, such as polystyrene. This makes it near enough an impossible job at the recycling centre, as there are only a few methods that can be used to check the type of plastic which is used.
Some plastic packaging can have different polymers in the body & the lid, making it difficult to sort out. Black plastic materials are dominant in the packaging of microwave meals for aesthetic reasons. Black plastics are notoriously difficult to sort out and can’t be easily scanned by recycling machines – with the majority of these plastics ending up in landfill.
What can be done to improve the recycling rate?
The biggest problem with recycling was once considered to be spreading awareness of the need to recycle and getting the consumer to do their bit. The awareness is now there and households all over the UK have the chance to recycle. But looking at the alarming rate of plastic still going to landfill, the focus must now shift to the manufacturers & governments working towards 100% recyclable plastics. Just like the levy on plastic bags or the “sugar tax” on soft drinks, an obviously effective way to would be to tax products produced in non-recyclable products.
Something similar has just been announced in France, with taxes on the rubbish buried in landfills and a planned tax relief for products packaged in plastics that have been used before.
The majority of plastic bottles are made of PET which is fully recyclable. But the original manufacturing process involves using oils such as petroleum, which does emit carbon dioxide. In 2009, Coca Cola introduced its trademark PlantBottle – the first-ever fully recyclable plastic bottle made partially from plants rather than fossil fuels. The company uses 6 billion of these bottles, which consist of sugar cane residue instead of petroleum, every year globally. 35 billion PlantBottles have been distributed in nearly 40 countries to date – eliminating over 315,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions and saving more than 36 million gallons of petrol. As a manufacturer, Coca Cola has gone above and beyond with this technology – so why can’t all manufacturers do the bare minimum by ensuring all plastic packaging is fully recyclable?
Everyday items that are a recycling nightmare
1. Microwave meal and meat packaging. These materials can be re-sorted and recycled easily, but need to be sorted using an optical scanner beforehand. The optical scanner can sort this material from any other colour other than black, yet manufacturers intentionally choose to use black packaging for aesthetic reasons. Changing the colour of these trays could lead to a real increase in recycling.
2. Fruit and Vegetable punnets. Though simple in design, these punnets are complex in construction, with three polymers used in the construction of them. Councils are calling for a simpler design using recyclable materials.
3. Bakery goods trays. The lining which is used to house cakes and baked goods contains two difficult-to-recycle polymers, polyethelene terephthalate and polystyrene. More recyclable materials are available to store baked goods.
As we continue to tackle our plastic problem, we should also try to reduce the amount of plastics we buy & reuse where possible.