Manufacturers must ‘scrap unrecyclable plastic used to package food’

Plastic package fridge

Manufacturers have been told they must scrap unrecyclable plastics used in packaging for key foods so that councils can reduce waste sent to landfill.

The warning from the Local Government Association (LGA) comes after research it commissioned suggested that only a third of plastic used by households is recyclable. It found 525,000 tonnes of plastic pots, tubs and trays are used by households a year but just 169,145 tonnes of this waste can be recycled.

The LGA is calling for manufacturers to work with councils and develop a plan to stop unrecyclable packaging from entering the environment in the first place.

Its researchers found that packaging for food can be made from a variety of polymers – molecules which make up plastic – which need to be separated out to remove “low grade” and non-recyclable polymers such as polystyrene.

Fruit and vegetable punnets are typically made from three different types of polymers including polystyrene. Some plastic packaging is made from a combination of polymers, as different plastics are used in the body and lid of a yoghurt pot.

In one example of particularly inefficient packaging, microwave meals are often encased in predominately black plastic material for aesthetic reasons.

However, black is the only colour that cannot be easily scanned by recycling machines and sorted, meaning this unnecessarily hinders the recycling process.

In addition to developing a plan that ensures recyclable packaging is used where possible, councils are calling on the government to consider a ban on low-grade plastics, and for producers and manufacturers to contribute to the cost of collection or disposal.

Councils have done all they can to tackle this issue, with 99 % of councils collecting plastic bottles for recycling and 77% collecting pots, tubs and trays, but the inclusion of these challenging polymers in so much packaging is making it extremely difficult for councils.

To increase recycling rates, it’s essential that manufacturers prevent materials entering the environment which hamper recycling efforts. Alternatives to the packaging saturated in polymers which are challenging to recycle could include cardboard, paper or a recyclable version of pots. For instance, if margarine tubs were made from the same material as plastic water bottles, they would be recyclable.

Cllr Judith Blake, LGA Environment spokesperson, said: “It’s time for manufacturers to stop letting a smorgasboard of unrecyclable and damaging plastic flow into our environment. Some of the measures that could help us reduce landfill and increase recycling are no- brainers; for instance, microwave meals should be stored in a container that is any other colour than black, to enable quicker recycling.

“We’ve been calling for producers of unrecyclable material to develop a plan to stop this from entering the environment for years. That needs to happen urgently, but the Government should now consider banning low-grade plastics, particularly those for single use, in order to increase recycling”

Useful links

Recycling facts and figures « Recycling Guide