Why is black plastic packaging so hard to recycle?

plastics_

(Jon Tyson, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Emma Charlton, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Black plastic is recyclable, but waste sorting systems can’t recognize black pigments.
  • Even if black plastic is separated, it often ends up in landfill.
  • Major UK supermarkets have pledged to stop using black plastic for their own product ranges.

You might have already used black plastic this week without thinking about it – but did you know it almost never gets recycled?

Frequently used by the food-packaging industry, black plastic is cheap and the dark background makes food look more appealing to consumers.

 

But the optical sorting systems used at many recycling plants can’t pick out the black pigment in the plastic. As a result, much of it remains unsorted and ends up in landfill.

Black plastic packaging is destined for landfill
This black plastic packaging is hard to recycle.
Image: WRAP

The material is so hard to recycle that some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets have pledged to stop using it in their own product ranges by the end of 2019, with others set to follow by the end of 2020.

While the label on the black plastic package might say it can be recycled, and you might put it in the correct bin, after it reaches the recycling centre it’s likely to end up in a landfill.

 Summary of trial results for Sicopal, Lumogen, carbon black, Colour Tone and ColorMatrix colourants
Recycling sorting machines can’t identify black plastic.
Image: WRAP

The chart above shows how Near Infrared (NIR) sorting systems can detect other dyes, but not carbon black.

Problem plastics

Plastic waste is polluting our ecosystems. About 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans every year.

But despite the growing environmental threat from plastic waste, only 14% of plastic packaging worldwide is collected for recycling.

The world of plastic, in numbers
World production of plastics
Image: The Conversation

Greenpeace says changing recycling systems to detect black plastic would take “a lot of time and money.” It argues a simpler solution would be for the UK government to ban the use of “problem plastics,” including black plastic, PVC and expanded polystyrene.

Plastic

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

“They’re outdated, hazardous and easily replaceable with better alternatives,” the organization says on its website.

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