UNTHA UK – What Does the Future Hold for Soft Plastic Recycling?

Gary Moore, sales director at UNTHA UK, looks at how the plastic recycling conversation is evolving in industry and what this means for ‘trickier’ applications.

Plastics have long been at the centre of the waste and recycling debate, with the focus in recent years having been on the phasing out of single-use plastics. And as we look towards the next 12 months, we’ll likely see attention being directed towards the ‘trickier’ side of plastic recycling — specifically in relation to flexible, or soft, plastics.

A closer look at the UK’s flexible plastics

For many years soft plastics have been used widely in packaging, medical devices, construction materials, and many other industries due to their versatility and durability. But in recent times, there has been a greater focus on what happens to them at the end of their lifespan.

In a bid to help stop such items being landfilled or incinerated, supermarkets across the country have set up collection points for recycling, but the UK’s infrastructure has struggled to process them.

For instance, despite representing 22% of all UK consumer plastic packaging in 2020, only 8% were recycled. This is one of the many reasons they are often deemed to be ‘problematic’ to deal with when ‘using traditional mechanical methods.’

As a result of local authorities being expected to adopt collection processes and infrastructure to recycle this waste stream by 2027, a competition — The Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging (SSPP) — has recently been launched by UK Research and Innovation’s SSPP Challenge and the Innovate UK Knowledge Transfer Network. The aim is to find innovative design solutions which capture — and make savvy use of — this household packaging waste.

However, while this is great news, it is important to consider how recycling lines will adapt to be able to process these notoriously difficult items. There will need to be a change in approach to the collection and handling of plastics, to ensure this is successful.

Handling plastics on home soil and the role of shredding

Last year, an investigation into what happened to supermarkets’ soft plastics, uncovered that certain stores’ material was shipped overseas — some for recycling and others which faced a more “uncertain fate”.

Today, there are lots of conversations happening in industry about the importance of plastics being handled in the country of origin, and it is vital that this remains a priority.

Consequently, this also means that there will be greater scrutiny on general recyclers handling plastics and plastic recycling specialists not always defaulting to energy recovery routes, but, where possible, shredding to segregate the plastics so that they can be reprocessed.

It is no secret that soft plastics — such as bags and films — are difficult to recycle using traditional methods, because they are easily tangled and can cause problems with processing equipment. But this is where shredding can help.

Once the soft plastic material has been shredded, it can then be further processed through other recycling techniques, to create new products. Shredding is a crucial step, as it helps to ensure that the material is more manageable, before it can be effectively recycled and reused.

What’s in store for this ‘tricky’ application?

In recent years, the negative impact of plastic waste on the environment has led to increased public awareness and concern about the use of plastics — especially those of the single-use variety. As a result, there has been a growing demand for sustainable alternatives and environmentally friendly practices.

It’s likely that we will continue to see this mindset translate into the soft plastics arena, too — not least because the UK Government has set targets to increase recycling rates, with a goal of 70% of plastic packaging by 2030.

Overall, while there is still progress to be made, the future of the country’s soft plastic recycling will look very promising, if it is not left and regarded as someone else’s ‘problem’.

With the right mindset and commitment to investments, there are technologies that can process more complicated plastic products, harness them as a resource, and help the nation reach its bold recycling targets.

Read more about UNTHA UK here.

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