The new tax on the manufacturing and import of plastics packaging that contains less than 30% recycled material comes into force on 1 April 2022. It is a measure that the Government believes will “transform the economies of sustainable packaging”.
Currently, 2.26 million tonnes a year of such packaging is used in the UK, with the vast majority being made from virgin plastics rather than recycled materials.
As a pioneer in the development of a near-infrared (NIR) colourant technology called Infra-Tone which aids the detection of historically difficult to sort black and coloured plastics packaging, Colour Tone supports this new tax. It is clearly a step in the right direction to encourage manufacturers to develop eco-friendly packaging solutions, but serious thought must now be given as to where the 30% recycled plastics is to come from.
This question is reflected in a recent comment from Phillip Law, director general of the British Plastics Federation (BPF), who said: “The plastics industry shares the Government’s ambition of being a good steward of the environment for future generations, but getting that right needs to involve manufacturers, retailers and the public.”
He also promised to “urge caution on requiring a specific level of recycled content in packaging products because we must ensure that the UK has the recycling infrastructure to meet demand [for recycled plastic]”.
This means investing in domestic recycling facilities so we can do more of this at home and not simply rely on the export of all our plastics waste. Particularly since this waste is being sent away largely in the hope rather than the expectation that it is being recycled, to countries with poor processing and insufficient waste reporting methods.
The focus is now on producers to solve the problem of recyclability of packaging, but the Government has failed to recognise the inadequacies in the recycling infrastructure itself. There is little benefit in increasing recyclable packaging content unless we ensure at the same time that it is being processed.
This leads us to a key question: is it fair to penalise plastics packaging producers if they cannot deliver the 30% recycled content? According to BPF figures, the UK’s recycling rate for plastic packaging is currently 46%, 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 items as the Government intends.
Not all this recycled material will be of suitable quality or available in the required polymer types to enable producers to use it in new packaging – particularly when it comes to satisfying stringent food-grade packaging requirements. Producers are, in fact, being set up to fail by trying to achieve the target – the amount of packaging produced may increase each year, but the actual tonnage available for reuse is only a smaller fraction of the previous year’s usage.
So how can we ensure there is sufficient volume of high-quality recycled feedstock available to prevent demand outstripping supply? This can only be achieved by overcoming two major challenges: 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.
The NIR spectrography used by MRFs and plastics recovery facilities (PRFs) offers a fast method of sorting mixed plastics waste by polymer type. But the major limitation with this process is that plastic is coloured and the colourant in the packaging can, depending on pigment choice, strongly absorb rather than reflect NIR. This means the sorter is unable to identify the ‘signature’ from the spectrophotometer.
Colour Tone’s Infra-Tone colourant technology is increasingly being adopted by responsible packaging producers, and is able to reflect radiation to optical sorters used by recyclers so it makes coloured and black plastic items ‘visible’ for detection. But if we want to capitalise on this technology, we need to ensure there are sufficient NIR sorting methods available in the UK’s MRFs and PRFs to recycle these plastics. But this is not possible without further investment.
If we are to effectively close-the-loop on plastics packaging, we need to support the entire supply chain to meet the challenges of economically processing mixed plastics – from product designers to recyclers – otherwise this new tax is simply setting up producers to fail.
Tony Gaukroger is director of Colour Tone Masterbatch