Recyclability of black plastic packaging

When designing and specifying packaging, circularity should be at the heart of decision-making. WRAP has developed guidance on plastic packaging which should be read in advance of deciding which plastics to select: Defining what's recyclable and best in class polymer choices for packaging.

A key part of the guidance and strategy for The UK Plastics Pact, is that when it comes to PET, whenever possible, clear plastic should be used since it has the greatest opportunity to be recycled back into plastic packaging, reflected in its market value.

Where plastic packaging is required to be coloured, WRAP encourages packaging specifiers and manufacturers to use detectable colourants. Under The UK Plastics Pact, any members using black plastic are requested to use detectable black pigments by the end of 2019 and waste management companies sort it for recycling.

The majority of conventional black plastic packaging is coloured using carbon black pigments which do not enable the pack to be sorted using Near Infra-Red (NIR) technology widely used in plastics recycling. As a result, black plastic packaging commonly ends up as residue and is disposed of in landfill or incinerated.

In food packaging, the use of clear plastic is encouraged since clear plastic can be recycled back into clear plastic or coloured plastic. Black plastic is often used for packaging because it enables colours or imperfections to be masked, however because of the use of carbon black pigments it is then not recycled. . Over the years WRAP has worked in partnership with key players in the retail supply chain to address this issue. The work has covered: 

• The range of potential solutions – different sorting technologies and colouration systems  
• Ability to sort detectable black and end markets - black PET plastics and black polypropylene
• An in-market trial to prove closed loop recycling for cPET trays  
 
Until sorting equipment is readily available to sort black plastic into correct polymer streams, tackling the issue is a two-stage process. Packaging needs to be designed to be detectable and NIR equipment may require some fine-tuning in order for the plastic to be sorted for recycling. WRAP is now developing guidance on this for packaging specifiers/manufacturers and recyclers as well as confirming any impact on end markets for PET if black were to be sorted in the jazz stream (research has already concluded that this is not an issue for polyolefins (PP or HDPE)). 
Through The UK Plastics Pact, WRAP aims for the majority of black plastic to be produced using detectable black and for this to be widely sorted for recycling by the end of 2019. 
 

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