Waste Management

Why Can't We Recycle Black Plastic?

Jul 10 2018 Read 200 Times

Public awareness of the problems surrounding plastic waste is on the increase. Slowly, consumers, manufacturers and indeed governments are waking up to the fact that plastic persists in our atmosphere for far longer than it is generally used and that collective, concerted action must be taken. Just last month, the UK Science Minister announced the launch of a £20 million Plastics Research and Innovation Fund to try and address the issue.

However, there is one kind of plastic which is in widespread use across the food packaging sector, but is unrecyclable at present – black plastic. Most commonly used to create the single-use containers for ready meals and takeaway food, this black plastic can be responsible for up to 1.3 billion such trays every year, the majority of which end up in landfill or, even worse, the ocean.

Unrecyclable but affordable

Black plastic is made from low-value multi-coloured plastics which are treated with carbon pigments to turn them black, meaning it’s a cheap and efficient alternative to other coloured plastics. However, those very pigments render it unable to be recycled in the UK, which results in far more landfill waste than other types of plastic.

“Recycling plant sensors can’t identify and sort black plastic, so most of it goes to landfill if we’re lucky and our oceans if we’re unlucky,” explains Fiona Nicholls, who works for Greenpeace as an oceans campaigner. “That’s why it is of such high concern. It’s popular for aesthetic reasons, in some cases because it blocks UV light, but mainly because it’s cheap.”

Leading the way

Despite the reluctance of many food manufacturers and retailers to ditch this polluting substance, some progressive outlets have taken the first steps in the right direction. Vegetarian company Quorn have pledged to remove all black plastic (which amounts to almost 300 tonnes of the stuff) from their supply chain by the end of last month, while frozen food specialists Iceland and premium supermarket Waitrose have both indicated they will remove it from their own-brand products in the near future.

“We will be pushing other retailers to follow their example, campaigning to get the pigment used to make the plastic black banned immediately, and for other problem plastics like this to be quickly phased out,” Nicholls continued.

Science holds the key

In addition to a push from the industry to remove black plastic from its production lines, it’s to be hoped that incentives like the Plastics Research and Innovation Fund mentioned above can spark technological breakthroughs which will make reliance on polluting forms of packaging a thing of the past. One such avenue could be the advent of forensic science and artificial intelligence working together to reduce plastic pollution.

Aside from that, individual consumers can also make a difference by voting with their wallets – and lobbying the industry and the government for change. “Consumers can only do so much to impact this issue through their buying decisions or waste sorting, but can have a much bigger impact by expressing their views to manufacturers, retailers and politicians,” said Nicholls. “They have the power to influence product design and make doing your bit much, much easier.”

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