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The Surprising Science Behind The Black Plastic Recycling Nightmare

Black plastic food packaging all too often ends up in landfill, despite being recyclable in theory.

Why does this popular packaging material go to waste, and what can we do about it?

Why Can’t Black Plastic from My Ready Meals Be Recycled?

Black plastic trays are often used to package ready meals, as well as trays for meat, fruit and vegetables. It’s seen as the most appealing way to present many foods, because the dark plastic makes colourful foods stand out well in contrast.

Black plastic can also be seen as an efficient use of resources, because it can be made by mixing scrap plastic of many different colours.

UK households are estimated to produce 30,000-60,000 tonnes of black plastic packaging each year.

Sorting Machines Can’t See the Black Plastic

You probably put most of your recyclable packaging into just one bin for glass, plastic, paper and more. At the recycling plant, all the different types and colours of materials must be separated.

Plastics are normally sorted by machines that use near-infrared light (invisible to the human eye) to ‘see’ the different colours.

Unfortunately, the dye that is most often used to colour black plastic is not seen by those sorting machines.

So, although black plastic recycling is possible, it often ends up in the leftover stream of unsorted materials. The next step is landfill or incineration.

For this reason, The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has recommended that local authorities add black plastics to their list of materials that can’t be recycled by household waste collection.

black plastic cups

How Can the Problem of Black Plastic Recycling Be Solved?

Alternative Black Dyes

It’s possible to use different dyes which can be detected by the existing sorting machines to give black plastic its colour.

WRAP estimates that it could cost less than half a penny per tray to switch to these detectable dyes.

But because these dyes don’t provide such an intense colour, it might take some persuasion for food producers to switch to them.

Different Packaging Materials

Another solution could be to use entirely different materials for packaging ready meals.

For example, manufacturer KCC Ltd has developed the Riji tray. Made from by-products from processing sugarcane, wheat and bamboo. It’s a biodegradable material and it’s great for packaging ready meals because it can cope with high oven temperatures.

Another biodegradable option for ready meals has been developed by DeliPac. Their award-winning material can be recycled with cardboard or composted at home. It’s still tough enough to cope with freezers and ovens, and can hold liquids without having to be lined with plastic. There are also many other brands working to develop and utilise compostable packaging.

cardboard packaging

What Are Brands and Supermarkets Doing?

Supermarkets and manufacturers are putting their heads together in a cross-industry group led by plastic recycling charity RECOUP. They want to enable the recycling of all black plastic bottles, tubs, trays and pots by the end of 2018. To meet this goal, they plan to expand the use of the alternative black dyes described above and investigate new sorting methods. They will also explore opportunities to side-step the issue by using other colours of packaging.

Waitrose has committed to cutting out black plastic packaging from their own-label products by the end of 2019. The supermarket has already removed 65% of black plastic packaging from their fruit and vegetables. They are also exploring alternatives to plastic punnets such as those made from recycled cardboard and tomato leaves!

Marks & Spencer did a month-long trial in 2014 where they sold ready meals in packaging coloured with an alternative black dye. Unfortunately M&S don’t appear to have switched to those dyes since then.

What Can I Do in the Meantime?

It shouldn’t be this difficult to buy convenient food without harming the planet. Until the food industry gets its act together, here are some things you can do to stop the needless waste of black plastic.

Buy Ready Meals That Use Recyclable Packaging

When you are shopping for ready meals, avoid the ones with black plastic. But do check whether the alternative packaging is collected for recycling by your local authority.

Look for Alternatives to Ready Meals

Making your own meals in batches ahead of time and freezing them in a reusable container is easy and can save money!

Recipe boxes such as HelloFresh and Gousto deliver just the right amount of ingredients and instructions for you to cook a meal. This lets you try out new flavours without having to buy large amounts of ingredients that you aren’t used to cooking with.

Some services that deliver cooked meals will collect the packaging on their next visit (e.g. Balance Box) or provide free postage for you to return the packaging (e.g. AllPlants). Others claim to use eco-friendly or recyclable packaging (e.g. EatFirst).

Put Pressure on Manufacturers and Supermarkets

Let supermarkets know that their customers want eco-friendly packaging options. For example, join Friends of the Earth’s campaign to get the food industry to switch to recyclable packaging options. Other ways can be with petitions directed at individual supermarkets to fix the problem of black plastic recycling. You could also try writing or tweeting to supermarkets to ask what they are doing to avoid wasting black plastic.

While black plastic packaging isn’t easy to recycle yet, alternatives are available. You can do your bit by avoiding black plastic where possible. And don’t forget to let supermarkets know that you want more planet-friendly packaging.

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