Should more councils recycle soft plastics?

70% of the UK’s plastic waste comes from plastic packaging, and a large proportion of this is soft plastics – which until recently haven’t been widely recycled. But as we strive for a circular economy, pressure is mounting on local authorities to include it in recycling collection services.

Should soft plastics recycling be adopted by more UK councils? Let’s look at the challenges of managing this type of material, and how supermarket schemes and selected local authority waste management teams are already demonstrating a viable route forward.

What are soft plastics?

‘Soft plastics’ or ‘flexible plastics’ are terms used for lightweight plastic material that can be scrunched in your hand – rather than the rigid plastic containers that people are used to recycling.

Common household items made with or packaged in soft plastic include:

  • Baby food pouches
  • Biscuit wrappers
  • Bread bags
  • Bubble wrap
  • Carrier bags
  • Cereal liners
  • Cling film
  • Crisp packets
  • Dried food packets such as pasta, rice, nuts and pulses
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Fruit and veg packaging
  • Flower packaging
  • Frozen food bags and wrapping (e.g. the plastic film covering frozen pizzas)
  • Magazine and newspaper wrappers
  • Microwave food pouches
  • Nappy bags
  • Pet food wrappers
  • Salad packets
  • Sauce sachets
  • Sweet wrappers
  • Yoghurt pot lids

Most of these items are not yet recycled as part of kerbside collection services. However, many households are keen for local waste management teams to start accepting them in a bid to reduce the volume of domestic waste going to landfill.

Why is soft plastic recycling problematic?

In 2018, circular economy charity WRAP launched the UK Plastics Pact, where Britain’s businesses vowed to make all plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. However, flexible plastics are proving to be a fly in the ointment for reaching this target – for example, only 4% of plastic film is currently recycled.

A major contributing factor to these low rates is that soft plastics can’t be included in most home recycling collections. This is because it’s difficult for local authority waste management teams to combine them into large enough volumes to ensure easy processing at household recycling centres. Soft plastics can get stuck in machinery, and the cost of collecting, separating and repurposing flexible plastics often outweighs the value to local authorities.

However, advancements in recycling technology are making it easier to manage different materials – including soft plastics – by separating them into different polymers, which can either be recycled into new containers or sent for energy recovery.

Where can soft plastics be recycled?

With many local waste management services reluctant to accept soft plastics, the movement to recycle them is being driven by private recycling companies like TerraCycle, which has teamed up with major supermarkets to launch flexible plastic packaging collection points.

Donated materials are sent to TerraCycle’s warehouse, where they are shredded and made into plastic pellets or flakes. These can be used in the construction of everything from composite paving to picnic tables.

Among the early adopters of soft plastic collection schemes are The Co-Op, which launched soft plastic collection points across its store network in July 2021. Tesco has also introduced the initiative, rolling out collection points across its UK retail network in August 2021. Early data shows that 85% of Tesco customers have recycled more of their household plastic than before the scheme was introduced.

But with supermarkets relying on people to drop off their soft plastic – many of whom will be taking a trip in their car to do so – it isn’t the most convenient or environmentally-friendly solution.

To make soft plastic recycling simpler, some local authority waste management teams are beginning to pick up the baton. For example, Guildford Borough Council, Surrey Heath Borough Council and Tandridge District Council all include flexible plastic in their kerbside recycling collections – but the other eight councils in Surrey don’t offer this service yet. And this lack of continuity is the same across the country.

Should councils include soft plastics in kerbside recycling collections?   

We’ve already mentioned some of the challenges associated with recycling flexible plastic packaging, but local authorities are facing increasing consumer pressure to stop soft plastic going to landfill. And if some regional services are already accepting this material, why can’t other councils follow suit?

To successfully expand current recycling schemes, however, municipal waste management teams need to look at the impact soft plastic services will have on wider collection and processing capabilities. For example:

  • Community education – councils will need to run an educational marketing campaign explaining to residents what soft plastics are, what can be included in kerbside collections, and how these new items should be sorted. Digital tools like resident mobile apps and online portals make sharing and accessing this information easier and more cost-effective.
  • Larger recycling volumes – recycling a wider range of materials is a good thing for the circular economy, but it’s going to increase the volume of waste being left out during recycling rounds. Waste management teams may need to recalculate vehicle and staffing requirements to accommodate new rules, re-planning routes to make sure that expanded recycling collections don’t compromise quality of service.
  • Updating collection crews – any change in approach needs to be clearly communicated with collection crews to be implemented successfully. Many councils instruct refuse workers not to pick up bins that don’t meet local guidelines (North East Lincolnshire crews leave red tags on wrongly sorted recycling bins, for example), and a lack of understanding around soft plastics could lead to collections being rejected unnecessarily. In-cab communication facilities can help to share accurate information on flexible plastic packaging recycling in real-time.
  • Understanding uptake – for any scheme to be commercially viable, the positive impact needs to exceed the cost of execution. For local authorities, recycling analytics are critical to proving how new initiatives like soft plastics processing are being managed cost-effectively and are helping councils to meet environmental targets. Equally, if analytics show uptake is lower than expected, this creates a springboard for discussions with local residents. Helping municipal waste management teams implement changes that ensure flexible plastics recycling is a regional (and ultimately national) success.

Whitespace is helping local authorities across the UK to run effective kerbside recycling collection services using digital waste management technology.

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