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Supermarkets criticised over black food trays

A masterbatch manufacturer says an unwillingness by supermarkets to spend a fraction of a penny per coloured food tray is pushing a large volume of preventable plastic waste towards landfill.

Each year, 1.3 billion plastic trays are used in the UK and a carbon pigment found in black trays renders them ‘invisible’ to near-infrared (NIR) sorting machines in recycling facilities.

Increasingly, the pigment is also present also in some other dark-coloured food packaging items, which means the problem is far more widespread than previously reported.

Caerphilly-based Colour Tone has been working with WRAP on ways to detect the plastic, and has developed a black pigment that would be identifiable for a small added cost.

Tony Gaukroger, director of Colour Tone, said: “The supermarkets must admit that black food trays represent just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more types of aesthetically pleasing coloured trays and cartons appearing each year that present a growing landfill crisis, from brown coffee pods to blue fish trays.

“The cost would be just 0.05p per tray, a small fraction of a penny and not even the 0.5p that has been recently reported. Yet the increasingly popular coloured trays can cost up to three times that amount [to manufacture].”

Recent WRAP guidance to local authorities has been to add black plastic to their ‘not recycled’ list unless council contractors say otherwise, and to put the material in residual bins.

“This guidance flies in the face of recent advances made in detectable pigment technology and growing consumer anger that the black plastics they have recycled for many years have been landfilled.” Gaukroger said.

“This difficult situation is made worse by the fact that black and coloured polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is just one type of food packaging waste. Serious thought must be given also to the many other plastics found in fast food packaging, for example, such as polystyrene, polypropylene and PVC. These are not widely recycled in practice either – the true size of the ‘iceberg’ then becomes clear.”

According to Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE) data, there were 800,000 tonnes of PET-based black trays in the market in 2014 and it is estimated the amount of PET-based thermoforms in the European market will reach one million tonnes in 2017.

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