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WRAP reveals plastics recycling breakthroughs

WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) has revealed that it could soon be possible to recycle almost all plastic packaging waste from domestic environments. Although over 300,000 tonnes of plastic packaging is collected for recycling each year – including a large number of plastic carrier bags – more than a million tonnes ends up going to landfill sites due to the problems of collecting and recycling films, detecting and sorting black plastics and the lack of high-value markets for non-bottle plastics.

WRAP – which works in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to help businesses and individuals reap the benefits of reducing waste – has identified a type of black plastic which, unlike conventional black plastics, can be detected by sorting systems in materials recovery facilities (MRFs). In a series of trials funded by WRAP, methods have also been identified to recycle complex laminated plastics, plastic films and polypropylene (PP) – materials that would typically be destined for landfill.

The tests found that, by using non-carbon pigments in the manufacture of black plastics, it is possible to create a material that is almost identical in colour but which can be identified by the type of optical sorting equipment used in MRFs. This development, WRAP believes, could lead to the widespread recycling of the most common plastic used in packaging into high-value, single-polymer materials.

For complex laminated packaging – as used in toothpaste and cosmetics tubes – another trial has found a way to recover the layer of high-value aluminium that is sandwiched between plastics. WRAP estimates that the 140,000 tonnes of this laminated packaging in the UK waste stream has an aluminium content of around 13,500 tonnes.

A further trial has resulted in a technique that could recycle post-consumer PP back in to material suitable for food-grade applications. Further work is required, but WRAP believes this development could help to grow high-value markets for recycled PP. It could also result in significant environmental benefits as retailers begin to use it in their packaging.

Interestingly, a method has also been developed that cleans and recycles contaminated film, producing a pellet with a sales value of £400 to £500 per tonne. The cost of sending this material to landfill is currently around £80 per tonne, so WRAP says the advantages of recycling this material are clear.

Commented Marcus Gover, Director of Closed Loop Economy at WRAP, “When we first looked at recycling non-bottle plastic packaging back in 2007, we carried out detailed studies to make sure it would be technically and economical viable. We also carried out a thorough life-cycle assessment to make sure it was the best environmental option. We’re now seeing this recycling becoming a reality, creating jobs and re-invigorating the manufacturing industry in the UK, reducing our reliance on exports.” He continued, “There have been, and there are still, barriers to overcome and WRAP will continue to work closely with the industry to develop these new methods and technologies so that, in the future, local authorities can offer their residents a way of recycling even more of their plastic packaging.”

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