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Trigger happy recyclers

A trial into separating trigger tops and flip caps for recycling brought together a range of diverse organisations, and shed some light on the practicalities of recycling niche material streams.

Packaging has many aims: convenience, freshness, protection. But these benefits can often create problems at the end of life. People have become adept at recycling the common materials, but if the UK is to improve recycling rates, some of the more difficult materials will need to be addressed.

Trigger caps, for example, are made from different types of plastic to that of the bottles, and can contain metal springs or ball bearings which make them difficult and costly to recycle. At some MRFs they are regarded as contaminants.

Manufacturers, retailers and recyclers often clash over the issue as to what happens to the product at the end of its life, and it is not usually given much consideration. But this is one of the themes that has come out of circular economy thinking: that end of life needs to be thought of at the design stage. Ironically, we have been here before because the prevalence of trigger caps is in part due to the switch from aerosols.

So how do we get more joined-up thinking and collaboration between international brands, retailing giants, local authorities and waste companies? This question needs to be addressed if we are to create a more resource-efficient economy. The WRAP trigger top and flip caps recycling project, Triggering a ‘Fresh’ Packaging Recycling Trial, gives some insight into this question.

From November 2014 to March this year, an unusual collaboration of organisations ran a trial looking into how to boost the amount of recycling of trigger tops and flip caps. A consortium was formed from Proctor & Gamble (P&G) through its Febreze brand, Somerset Waste Partnership (SWP), Gloucestershire Joint Waste Team (JWT), TerraCycle, Tesco and Anthesis LRS.

Collection points were rolled out and the message to the consumer was to encourage them to separate out trigger tops and flip caps from plastic bottles and take them to the trial’s collection points for recycling. People were asked to continue to recycle non-drinks plastic bottles such as Febreze and Fairy Liquid through usual household recycling schemes.

Finally, TerraCycle’s independent and separate initiative, the Air and Home Care Brigade, was highlighted as a means for residents who could not get to collection points to send the tops and caps directly to the company for recycling.

Containers were rolled out across 11 existing recycling sites in Tesco car parks and all 22 of Gloucestershire County Council and SWP household waste recycling centres. The containers were labelled with the campaign message telling consumers what caps and tops could be recycled, and they were positioned opposite plastic bottle collection points. Funding came from WRAP under the Courtauld Commitment 3, which was matched through P&G under its Febreze brand.

During the trial, observers noted that many tops and caps were collected when consumers came to drop off plastic bottles and, having seen the signage, separated the tops from the bottles. It also became apparent that some trigger tops and caps cannot be separated from their bottles – a design issue that would need to be addressed by the manufacturers if recycling of this material was to become widespread.

Trigger tops

As well as bin and collection container signage, the trial was publicised with posters across local facilities such as libraries and gyms and through social media and newsletters. The initiative was picked up by local and industry media and achieved good coverage. In total, 67.9kg of trigger tops and flip caps were collected and sent to TerraCycle.

The separate Air and Home Care Brigade scheme was also publicised. This is a broader recycling scheme which, as well as trigger tops and flip caps, also takes flexible wipe packaging, plastic air fresheners, air freshener cartridges and their plastic packaging. This scheme is sponsored by Febreze, and works by recruiting ‘brigades’ of individuals or groups who collect these items and send them on to TerraCycle. In return, the groups are given points which are turned into cash for the charities of their choice.

So was the trial a success? Tim Duke, marketing communications manager at consultancy Anthesis LRS, explains: “The trial was not intended to generate a huge amount of tonnage because it was short and the materials being collected were quite small. It isn’t like FMCG packaging, such as a juice bottle, that gets disposed of every day. Once a month you might finish an anti-bug spray.

“The success of the trial was delivered by the partnership working and collaboration, bringing councils to work with major brands and retailers and to try to communicate how a non-standard material could be recycled.”

Measured on these terms, the trial was a success. The organisations involved had never worked together before, and Duke reports that they were very positive: “It’s always a challenge working on a multi-stakeholder project.” He adds: “Asking residents to identify the materials and take them to collection points is asking someone to do something that is quite a challenge – it’s changing someone’s behaviour.”

Sue Reed, programme area manager for collections and recycling at WRAP, agrees that there was a real benefit in bringing together different players to “try something new”. She believes the trial was also useful to highlight how particular product ranges could be adapted to help close the loop on recycling.

She explains: “If products had trigger tops and flip caps made of the same plastic material as the bottle – where sometimes these include different plastic polymers or metal components – this would help with its incorporation into mainstream materials collected at kerbside, thereby making it simpler for householders.”

According to Stephen Clarke, director of client services at TerraCycle, the trial illustrated yet again how important it was to keep campaign messages simple and make it easy for the consumer. TerraCycle, as a result, has just made its Air and Home Care Brigade service easier for people by creating a series of public drop-off points so they do not have to sign up to the programme to take part.

Steve Read, managing director at SWP and head of service of Gloucestershire JWT, agrees, adding that the trial showed how important information and education campaigns are to the success of a recycling project. This is an area that councils have a wealth of experience in. He argues that it is not the case that “if we build a playing field, people will use it. Local authorities know it is far more nuanced than that – people are not homogenised and messages take time to sink in.”

Read says the scheme demonstrated that recycling trigger tops could be done but, overall, there did not seem to be any “clear benefit” in continuing, adding “this is the sort of thing that you don’t know until you try”.

However, he believes the scheme had an incredibly important educational role in joining up the dots for the householder.

“In the mind of the consumer, recycling is what happens to the stuff they put out at the end of their drive. What we are trying to do with this is reference in the mind of the consumer that the way we handle this product is part of a resource loop.”

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