Black plastic packaging hub

7th July 2020

Everything you need to know about the recyclability of black plastic packaging. 

Answering your questions
What are carbon black pigments?
What is NIR detectable black?
Is black plastic recyclable?
Answers to these and many more questions on our black plastic packaging hub

Overview

We receive hundreds of questions from UK Plastics Pact members and wider industry about black plastic, and its use in packaging.

UK Plastics Pact members are moving out of non-recyclable black plastic. Many have made good progress with most companies either having phased it out (many replacing with clear plastic with a higher market value, or adopting a 'no additional pigment' approach), in the process of phasing it out, or adopting NIR detectable black. Many waste management companies, also members of The UK Plastics Pact, are committed to the direction of travel on black plastic. 
 
You can see what individual members of the Pact have been doing to eliminate non detectable black plastic packaging within the Members Progress Report.
 
Below are some of the most frequently asked questions on the subject to help inform you on this material and aid your decision making when it comes to using black plastic or not. 
 
We also reference some key reports which add the extra layer of detail on the subject. 
 

Your essential reading list 

Your FAQs answered 

 

Innovations & best practice 

Major brands and supermarkets are taking action on black plastic

  • Major supermarkets remove non-recyclable black plastic - Aldi, ASDA, Lidl, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Waitrose have made significant steps to remove non-recyclable black plastic. Morrisons and Co-op have removed black plastic from all its own brand food and drink packaging.
  • Moving from black to clear - Leading brands, Mr Kipling & Cadbury have moved their cake trays from black to clear plastic. Removing 500 tonnes of black plastic annually.
  • Detectable black plastic – In collaboration with the recycling sector, Unilever (owner of the TRESemmé and Lynx brands), have changed their bottles to contain a detectable black pigment making them recyclable.

Other innovations that enhance recyclability 

Manufacturers are moving to clear plastic to enhance recyclability

  • Clear is the new green - Sprite bottles have always been recyclable, but they have recently switched the iconic green bottle to a clear bottle to make the recycling process even easier and to help ensure the plastic can be turned into another bottle.
  • More green to clear - Sainsbury’s have also moved all of their sparkling water bottles from green to clear.

Increasing recycled content in food trays

  • Leading retailers embrace circular design in ready meal trays - Waitrose , ASDA and Morrisons have adopted ready meal trays containing 80% recycled PET which fluctuate in colour reflecting the blend of recycled bottles and trays they are made from.
  • Asda boost recycled content levels - By the end of 2019 ASDA will have introduced a minimum of 50% recycled content into all their produce trays (excluding mushrooms).

 Read more in The UK Plastics Pact annual report 2018-19 >>

Your FAQs answered 

What is Carbon Black, and why is it a problem?

Carbon Black is the name of a common black pigment, it appears black because it reflects almost no light in the visible part of the spectrum and also strongly absorbs in the ultra-violet (UV) and infrared (IR) spectral range. This means that plastics containing carbon black pigment are invisible to equipment that sorts material for recycling.

What is NIR detectable black?  

Near-Infrared or NIR detectable black is a pigment that does not contain carbon black but still appears to give the appearance of black plastic. As it does not contain carbon black it does not absorb light to the same degree as traditional carbon black pigments and is therefore detectable by NIR equipment that is used within the recycling sector.
 
 

What should we use as an alternative??

PolymerBest in Class
Food grade  aPETClear PET
Non-food grade  aPETClear PET
cPET‘Natural’ or unpigmented
Food grade HDPE Natural or uncoloured (not white)
Non-food grade HDPE (i.e. milk bottles)Any NIR detectable pigment
PPAny NIR detectable pigment

For more information please see our Polymer Choice and Recyclability Guidance.   

What levels of carbon black can be detected?

AcceptableUnacceptable
Any non-carbon black based pigment or masterbatch>0 parts per million carbon black

For more information please see our report on NIR Detectability of Plastic Packaging

Should all packaging be clear/natural (i.e. have no pigments whatsoever)?

Not all packaging needs to be clear/natural. Please see our Polymer Choice and Recyclability Guidance for more information and detail on this. It is important to note that WRAP guidance is based on existing infrastructure and widespread technical capabilities.  

 

Is it still ok to use black and dark pigments?

In the first instance, WRAP recommends reviewing our Polymer Choices and Recyclability Guidance. Any black plastic used needs to be detectable by NIR equipment. Take a look at the WRAP reports on the alternatives to carbon black pigments. ‘Development of NIR Detectable Black Plastic Packaging’ and 'NIR Detectability of Plastic Packaging' which gives further detail on our answer.  

 

How many local authorities accept NIR detectable black in their collections?

Over 75% of local authorities collect pots, tubs and trays at the kerbside. WRAP recommends that all local authorities check with contractors, ensure they are aware of these developments and to make any necessary adjustments to NIR equipment settings. WRAP are happy to provide information to Local Authorities and waste management companies who have concerns on this. 

 

Does NIR detectable black have any effect on the end markets/end uses? 

WRAP have carried out an extensive research on the impacts an increased use of detectable black and cream PET has on the end market. See report. Findings show that the recyclate meets the current specifications of end users, however there is a change in colour (darker if more black pigments, lighter if there are more cream pigments).

Are there any times where carbon black plastics should still be used?

Further work is needed in this area, for example, it could be beneficial for some highly contaminated packaging that would not be wanted in the recycling system to be carbon black, however it is not a priority for The UK Plastics Pact at this time.

 

 

How much packaging is currently in non-detectable black plastic?

An estimated 19,212tn of non-recyclable plastics trays have been removed from shelves in 2019 (equivalent to 23 trays per person in the UK). These have been replaced with clear plastics trays; non-pigmented trays and detectable black pigmented trays.

Should we be putting black plastic in the recycling? 

The majority of black plastic on the shelves is now made from detectable pigments. Black plastic packaging can be recycled where councils offer collections and citizens should visit the recycling locator at recyclenow.com for more information about their local collections.

Is it just black plastic that is problematic to sort for recycling or can other colours contain carbon black?

Contrary to popular belief the issue surrounding carbon black is not restricted to black packaging. Many other colours (such as dark blues, greens and browns) can contain carbon black and therefore are sometimes not sorted for recycling.

What about a black cap on a bottle for example- is this a problem?

WRAP recommend that all councils communicate to citizens to screw caps on the top of their bottles to give it the best chance of being recycled. If the cap is intact with the bottle then it will be sorted for recycling.

How should members communicate the use of NIR-detectable black plastic to consumers?

OPRL has incorporated detectable black packaging in its most recent update of labelling rules.

How do the recyclers and reprocessors adjust their equipment?

Recyclers and reprocessors will need to speak to their NIR equipment manufacturers to make the necessary adjustments. UK Plastics Pact members have already committed to making the necessary adjustments in plants that they are able to.

Is carbon black still not detected / is a pigment still required in the black plastic?

Carbon black is still an issue and is not detectable. WRAP recommends only using NIR detectable pigments or masterbatches, for more information please see our Polymer Choice and Recyclability Guidance document

How are citizens to know the difference when it comes to ensuring they are recycled?

  • It is WRAP's view that citizens should not have to tell the difference. Packaging producers are called upon to either move out of black, or use NIR detectable black and therefore the message will be simple. 
  • Retailers and brand owners can label their packaging using OPRL’s system which has incorporated the correct recycling message.
  • Naturally Local Authorities and Waste Management Partners have a part to play in communicating this message. WRAP are working with this sector on how to do this.

Should they be looking to move back in to black where possible- is NIR detectable black a cheaper material than clear?

WRAP recommends retailers and brand owners consider the Polymer Choice and Recyclability Guidance when making this decision.

Does NIR-detectable have its own OPRL label?

Please refer to OPRL on which labels to use.

Is NIR-detectable on par with clear as good practice if they can both be recycled?

This is dependant on the polymer type, please refer to the Polymer Choice and Recyclability Guidance. 

Will all UK reprocessors be able to recycle NIR-detectable?

WRAP is working with the Waste Management Sector for as many reprocessing plants to be able to process this material as possible. The UK Plastics Pact members, which represent ~75% or Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs) and Plastic Recycling Facilities (PRFs) in the UK, have committed to making the necessary adjustments to their equipment where possible.