In 2018, 42 large organisations signed up to Wrap’s Plastics Pact – pledging to eliminate unnecessary wrapping, stop using unrecyclable plastic, and include at least 30% recycled material in new packaging. The key challenge was getting hold of waste to recycle.
This led to Wrap’s published recommendation in 2021 that “retailer take-back recycling schemes provide an interim solution” at least until local governments could take over. Since then supermarkets have stepped up, providing customers with shop-and-drop facilities to recycle their flexible packaging, such as crisp packets, food pouches, film lids, salad bags, biscuit and cake wrappers.
This flexible packaging is notoriously hard to recycle, as it’s made from a number of different polymers and can be stretchy, crinkly, coloured, or “metalised” with a reflective coating.
In fact, only 6% of polyolefin (LDPE, LLDPE, HDPE, PP) films are recycled. And this 6% is still only turned back into relatively low-value products. The current industrial recycling of post-consumer polyolefin films is trying to deal with its complex mixtures, and does not have any suitable decontamination processes that for allow closed-loop food-grade compliance.
But things are about to change, thanks to the trial of a disruptive waterless cleaning process that can be integrated into mechanical recycling operations. It relies on ScCO2, a non-toxic, non-flammable, non-corrosive solvent that can efficiently remove potential contaminants that might be found in films.
Combining low-pressure super-critical CO2 (scCO2) with green co-solvents, this process can remove oils, fats and printing inks and effectively decontaminate polyolefin films under EFSA challenge test conditions back to food contact levels.
This technology not only offers a new recycling stream, it also facilitates significant reductions in waste to landfill, displacement of virgin resin and significant savings in resources and reductions in carbon emissions and water usage.
To take advantage of this breakthrough technology, however, supermarkets need to shift beyond merely being drop-off and collection centres. There is now a huge opportunity for them to become fully circular and strengthen their relationship with the recycling ecosystem. In fact, the next obvious step for supermarkets is to reverse-engineer the entire process and become recycling hubs in their own right.
This might sound controversial, however we are well beyond the trial period and now need to fully embrace a new recycling era, where supermarkets are valued partners in the systemic change required to advance the circular economy.
Bold action is needed now to overcome the threats of global mismanaged waste. This means boosting collection and recycling to offset the rapidly growing problem of resource over-consumption, while preventing excessive waste and reducing our dependency on primary resources.
The sheer amount of waste and its mismanagement pose the twin threats of direct pollution and loss of resources, which increase as populations continue to grow. By 2030, the energy embodied in items that get thrown away will represent up to 15% of our current CO2 emissions. Between now and then, carbon emissions associated with the production of what eventually becomes municipal waste will grow by up to two-thirds, undermining efforts in other areas of the economy that are getting the most attention, such as energy and transport systems.
Supermarkets can play a vital role in the circularity of recycling. Their initial successes now need to be built upon.