The road to kerbside collection of soft plastics
Flexible plastics are set to be introduced to kerbside collections by 2027, but how is this practically going to be achieved? And who is going to pay? Will Simpson investigates.
For years, they have been one of the biggest conundrums in the recycling sector. Flexible plastics — the scrunchable ‘film’ plastics that are most often used in food packaging — have been going into our waste bins, and thus landfill, for decades. Their current recycling rate is estimated to be as low as eight per cent.
Last year, the government finally decided to take action on this. Defra’s Consultancy on Consistency on Recycling in England suggested that with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) the cost of collecting, sorting and processing flexible plastics should fall on producers and proposed a target of March 2027 for the material to be added to all local authority kerbside collections in England.
This is a tall order. Not least because the Consultancy remained vague on how this would be achieved in such a short space of time and how it would be funded. When pressed for an answer for this article, Defra simply stated: “Government has received a clear message from industry that early signalling of this and the intent to require the collection of plastic film and flexible packaging for recycling is necessary to stimulate the investment needed in UK recycling infrastructure.”
The FlexCollect Trial
How the collection of flexibles would work in the co-mingled systems that are the most common among England’s local authorities and what impact its collection would have on the country’s recycling infrastructure is a question that many are currently grappling with. To this end, a series of trials have been launched, called FlexCollect. This is a three-year project that came out of the Flexibles Plastics Fund, which the compliance scheme Ecosurety administers and is supported by most of the main food manufacturers, including Nestle, Mars and Pepsico.
“The aim is to really answer all the questions that are currently floating around about this,” explains Gareth Morton, Ecosurety’s Discovery Manager. “When EPR comes in, how are local authorities going to collect flexible plastics? How are they going to manage the material? Where is it going to go? How is industry going to deal with it and what is it going to be recycled into? It’s not good enough anymore for it to be collected and go to waste.”
“We are going to work with nine local authorities directly in England. The Welsh government and Northern Ireland are also doing trials. They are going to be a representative sample of different types of local authorities, different types of sections of the community, and different types of collections. We’re going to work out as far as we can the most efficient collection method. How do you do it if you’ve got non-separated collections or separated? How do you then sort the material when the vehicle gets back to the depot and what do you do with it next?”
The first trial started in Cheltenham in October 2022 with 2000 properties that currently have a source-segregated collection. These have been given a dedicated bag into which the flexibles are placed. The second trial is due to launch in South Gloucestershire by the end of the year. Morton estimates that the results of the trials will be published in an interim report by Ecosurety’s stakeholder group — which includes Defra and LARAC — in a year’s time.
Alongside the FlexCollect pilot, other trials are taking place. In Northern Ireland, a small trial by Bryson Recycling is supplying half the households with bags and the other half are using their own bags. “Anecdotally, what they have seen so far" Morton explains, "is that there is very little difference in either participation or the amount of flexibles retrieved across both sets of households. The caveat to that is that it is early days and a small sample. In some ways, it would be better to have no bag instead of more flexible plastics to collect your flexible plastics! And there are the logistics of giving everyone a bag."
Integrating flexible plastics into recycling infrastructure
Within separated collections, flexibles don’t present as much of an issue. It’s a different story with co-mingled systems. “We’re also looking at putting a bag in the co-mingled bit to get hooked out,” says Morton. “We will probably look at collecting it loose but that is dependent on quite serious discussions with MRFs because the question will then be ‘can you cope with the material?’ It’s one thing to be picking out a bag full of flexibles, to picking it out of 50,000 things coming down your sorting line.”
Many industry observers are worried the biggest pinch point of this new system could be MRFs. John Coates, Head Of External Affairs at LARAC sees potential problems ahead. “Councils are just part of the supply chain. The first challenge would be the other parts of the supply chain – sorting technology being enabled to introduce flexible plastics to a degree of quality they expect. There’s no incentive to upgrade sorting technology until there is clarity from the Government, who haven’t been very clear on implementation and lead-in dates. If MRFs don’t change then there’s not much point in collecting it — if it’s not going to become high-quality recyclate.”
The problem isn’t just the changes to MRFs that the addition of flexibles will entail, it’s the contamination that will likely arrive if they do come via a co-mingled system. “It’s always going to be a massive, massive challenge for any MRF operator,” says Marcus Brew, the Managing Director of UNTHA — a York-based firm that designs MRFs. “You’re only as good as the material that you collect. I mean if you look at the moment, with even those cardboard collections and the dry mixed recyclables that get picked up, it only takes a couple of guys along the street to ignore the fact they shouldn’t put their organics in there and the recyclable within the collection wagon for that whole area is ruined.”
“I mean the technology will be available. We will be able to process it. But what you’ll find is there will be reduced revenues for that material, just because it will be contaminated at source.”
There is also the vexed question of end markets for all these additional flexibles. Although an increasing amount ends up being used again to package products, much of this is in bulk extruded and moulded products such as plastic lumber. The worry is that much will simply end up being ‘exported’, or worse dumped, outside the UK.
Some MRF operators though are more confident that they will be able to cope with the upcoming changes. “We are already doing around 25,000 tonnes of it per year,” says Joseph Doherty, Managing Director of Re-Gen. “I think that any MRFs that are well-invested in won’t have an issue. I don’t see flexible plastics as presenting a contamination issue.”
“Yes, flexibles will have to be sorted further because the householder won’t be able to separate it into different types. But I think EPR will reduce those types — I expect more streamlining on the plastic types being used. And eventually, end markets for these materials will emerge, and then demand will develop and with that increased value. So we’re going to go on a journey and that journey has to happen. And although there will be some big operators who will be worried about it, I feel more confident.”
Marcus Brew relates that many MRFs are gearing up for the addition of flexibles. “There are plenty of guys out there that are already separating plastics and films. They have bag openers and shredders in front to break down the material. Lots of NIRs (Near Infra Red sorters) in there, lots of screening, trying to get to a point where you’ve got a salable material.” He adds though that much of this material is coming from industry and is thus likely to be less contaminated. “It’s manufacturers that use a certain type of film in their process, which is quite easy to get fairly good revenue from because you know exactly what you’re selling. If you start going into a system where you’ve got contamination then you’ve got to have a lot of quality checks on that material. But that can’t be automated — there’s still got to be a guy who’s stood there checking that material as it comes out.”
Greyparrot AI, however, offers an alternative. They have trained their system to recognise flexible film and metallised film wrappers with over 95 per cent count accuracy on co-mingled waste streams. They are now in the process of expanding flexible film into eight new classes to allow for closer segmentation. Dominic Calina, Head of Data at Greyparrot, confirms they have “found no barrier to the adoption of AI by the appearance of flexible film. Our system is recognising and reporting on flexible films around the world as we speak.”
This does, however, cost. Indeed one of the question marks over the whole flexibles issue is who will pay for the EPR and the redesign of MRFs. Brew sees it as inevitable that increased gate fees will end up being passed onto residents in some way. “At the end of it, it’s really difficult to get businesses to pay for that material at source. So the easiest route will be to pass it onto the resident, either through increased council tax bills or most probably as another additional payment like garden waste.”
Kerbside collection of flexible plastics: Is it possible?
With 2027 just over four years away many of the stakeholders we spoke to doubted whether the government’s target will be met. “I don’t think 2027 is unachievable,” says John Coates. “If we get clarity on policy then the industry can all start pulling in the same direction. But without it being mandated in legislation I just can’t see councils changing over, because right now co-mingled is the cheapest technology. With council finances what they are — and they are not going to get better in the short term — we’re already talking about huge cuts. In a lot of the new contracts that MRFs are negotiating, we’re hearing from the local government side that they’re not prepared to take on the risk of what materials may be required for the future. Consequently, they’re signing short-term contracts and across the board councils are seeing gate fees rise because of that.”
“Without that clear direction, everybody will hold fire. If you look at the other nations — Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland — they are striding ahead. They are talking about their plans, the EPR, consistency. Councils operating in those nations have a clearer picture and can make decisions now, whereas in England it’s just chaotic at the moment.”
So huge challenges await. And it looks like it will sometime yet before the flexibles conundrum can be said to have been truly cracked.