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Tony Gaukroger, Director, Colour Tone Masterbatch

Brand owners to solve our recyclability problem

The focus is now very much on brand owners to solve the problem of recyclability, but the government needs to recognise the inadequacies in the UK’s recycling infrastructure to meet demand. There is little benefit in raising recycled content unless we are also ensuring at the same time that it is being processed.

According to the British Plastics Foundation, the UK’s recycling rate for plastic packaging is currently 46 per cent, but we are making a fundamental error if we are to assume that 100% of this recycled material will be available to use in new packaging as the government intends.

Since not all of this recycled material will be either of the required quality, or available in the polymer types to enable producers to use it in new packaging. Producers are in fact being set up to fail by trying to achieve this target - as the amount of packaging produced increases each year, but the actual tonnage available for re-use is only a smaller fraction when based on the previous year’s usage.

There are two key considerations that we must address to satisfy the government’s ambitious targets: -

• How to ensure a large source of recycled feedstock?

• How to effectively ‘mask’ the recycled content in new packaging to ensure it too can be recycled?

Ensuring a large source of recycled material

Our first priority is to ensure we have a large source of recycled material suitable for reclaiming back into new products - this will require the identification, sorting and preparing plastic for recycling from existing post-consumer waste streams. To make this possible the packaging materials we use today, will need to meet this challenge.

This means designing packaging for ‘end-of-life’ recycling and introducing a consistent approach towards the separation of mixed post-consumer waste to maximise our recycling potential and minimise landfill.

End-of-life recycling

The near-infrared (NIR) spectrography used by UK materials recovery facilities (MRFs), offers a fast method of sorting mixed plastics waste by polymer type. The major limitation with this process however, is that if the plastic is coloured and the colourant in the packaging may strongly absorb, rather than reflect NIR, so the sorter is unable to identify the ‘signature’ from the spectrophotometer.

Colour Tone helped to pioneer a novel colourant technology that is increasingly being adopted by packaging producers, it is able to reflect radiation to optical sorters used by recyclers so coloured and black plastic items become ‘visible’ for detection. This means that black plastic is no longer perceived as ‘bad’ plastic, it is in fact ‘green’.

‘Masking’ recycled content in new packaging

We must also consider if and when, we start incorporating this proposed 30 per cent of recyclate back into the new packaging that it is aesthetically pleasing and able to meet the same criteria. The new products will need to be coloured to "mask" the appearance of the prime polymer containing recyclate, so the need for NIR detectable black and coloured plastics becomes even more acute.

The alternative of course, is that brand owners may decide to switch to near infrared detectable natural, clear or light coloured products featuring 30 per cent recyclate, but these will look discoloured and therefore unacceptable to consumers. No-one is going to buy hair care or soap bottles in "dirty" looking plastic packaging.

The adoption of Colour Tone’s novel colourant technology will therefore, help brand owners and packaging manufacturers to meet sustainability goals by ensuring the recyclability of black and coloured packaging. But if we want to move from a linear to a circular model the entire supply chain must meet the challenge of processing plastics waste otherwise the new tax may only set up brand owners to fail.