With increasing attention drawn to their packaging washing up on pristine beaches, brands such as Unilever, Nestle and Procter & Gamble are setting stretch targets to adopt more circular approaches. We look at innovation in use of recycled plastics and the barriers to taking them to scale
Recovering the value of plastic when it’s been used means we must get better at sorting waste. The purer each recycling stream, the better the quality (and value) of the recovered plastic.
Materials-recovery centres use near infrared optical sorting systems to identify different polymers, but they can’t distinguish plastics suitable for food storage, identify what’s under a shrink-wrap sleeve or recognise black plastics, so they all end up in landfill. The pigment used in black plastics is carbon black. Its value is in the protection it offers from sunlight. But if that isn’t required, using an alternative organic pigment would allow 70,000 tonnes of black plastic to be reclaimed annually in the UK – and some 500,000 tonnes across Europe – according to Edward Kosior, managing director of recycling consultants Nextek.
“Marker technologies are a cornerstone project for achieving a plastics circular economy,” he says. His firm is leading a UK-funded project, Plastic Packaging Recycling using Intelligent Separation Technologies for Materials (PRISM), to develop novel fluorescent markers using various materials such as waste powder from fluorescent lights and tubes, and metal oxide nanoparticles. The markers can be invisibly applied to labels, and removed and recovered before recycling. Kosior says they’re able...