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Tesco introduces first recycled food-grade soft plastic packaging

UK supermarket Tesco is set to trial new recycled food-grade soft plastic packaging on a range of cheeses in its stores this week, the first time that soft plastic packaging has been recycled into safe food-grade packaging.

Soft plastic packaging is used regularly to package foods like bread, cucumbers and meat, due to its ability to maintain freshness. However, it is one of the most commonly disposed of plastics with more than ever being used over the lockdown period in the UK.

Selection of Tesco cheeseAccording to the 2019 UK Household Plastic Collection Survey, the UK uses almost 400,000 tonnes of soft plastics every year but only manages to recycle under 21,000 tonnes, which is then only able to be recycled into non-food grade material.

Tesco recognised this issue and started exploring ways to address it with an in-store trial in 2019, setting up collection points in 10 Tesco stores across the south west of England.

Tesco’s soft plastic recycling system takes a whole supply chain approach. After customers return their soft plastic packaging to the store, it is forwarded on to Plastic Energy, which uses a process called pyrolysis to melt the plastic into an oil.

The oil is then used by SABIC instead of fossil fuels to make new plastic pellets. Sealed Air then merges the use of the pellets with its existing designs to create packaging that still meets all of the performance requirements of Tesco’s cheese supplier, Bradburys.

Tesco will use this packaging, containing a minimum of 30 per cent recycled material, on seven of its cheeses.

Tesco aims to have a closed-loop recycling scheme in place for all of its packaging, with further packaging sustainability aims found in its 4R Remove, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle programme.

James Bull, Head of Packaging at Tesco, said: “We are removing all excessive and non-recyclable packaging from our business and will ensure everything that remains can be recycled as a part of a closed loop. This exciting new partnership has the potential to show that every piece of plastic we use can be recycled. If we can roll out this approach at scale throughout our industry it could be of enormous benefit to our planet.”

Soft plastics are hard to process because they can clog up sorting machinery and certain applications, such as crisp packets, are made of a complex combination of plastic and aluminium, which is difficult to separate.

It is also not financially viable for councils to collect soft plastics given the lack of facilities available to recycle them. In 2019, just 16 per cent of local authorities collected soft plastics, showing, for the third consecutive year, a decline in the amount of local authorities collecting soft plastic.

The Waste and Resources Action Programme WRAP recently launched a new roadmap for soft flexible plastic packaging, which aims to provide solutions to the issue of soft plastics recycling.

Peter Maddox, Director of WRAP UK, said of Tesco’s trial: “this is a very exciting development in the challenging journey towards making flexible plastic packaging recyclable and circular. Tesco, a founding member of The UK Plastics Pact, has demonstrated that by taking an innovative and collaborative approach, new solutions can be found to take plastics from in-store collection points to a food-grade packaging format. The next challenge will be to test how scalable it is, and I look forward to seeing how the project progresses.”

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