M&S and Sainsbury’s to trial new black plastic trays

In conjunction with WRAP, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer (M&S) have announced an in-market trial to test new CPET trays used in ready meal packaging, in an attempt to increase recycling rates.

The black plastic challenge

Currently, approximately 1.3 billion black CPET trays are used in packaging in the UK each year and, despite being technically fully recyclable, the trays often get sent to landfill or to energy-from-waste (EfW) plants.

The main problem is that the principal pigment used to colour black plastic, carbon black, is not detectable with near-infrared (NIR) optical sorting equipment at recycling plants.

Mid-infrared sorters, on the other hand, are able to detect currently used black plastic trays, but not on a commercially-viable scale. And alternative pigments that can be detected by NIR sensors need to be used in slightly larger quantities than carbon black, causing a consequent increase in price – which has led some commentators to doubt whether industry would be keen to take them up.  

Trial details

However, the new trial, coordinated by Nextek, will employ a new type of black CPET tray that uses an alternative colourant detectable by the NIR system. A spokesperson for M&S told Resource that the exact colourant was confidential at the moment, but that "as part of the trial, the team is aiming to make sure it comes out at no extra cost to the normal colourant used".

M&S and Sainsbury’s will be trialling approximately two million detectable CPET trays manufactured by Faerch Plast across their ready meal ranges in stores for a month commencing mid July.

These meals will be sold in the UK over a four-week period, with a high density in the South East of England, where the recovery of the trays is planned to take place.

The project team hopes that the trial will demonstrate the effectiveness of the new tray from manufacture to reprocessing.

Biffa is set to use the NIR detection technology to sort the detectable black CPET trays, and Nextek will assist with the automatic sorting and supervise the recycling and decontamination of the material back to Faerch Plast for assessment of the ability to manufacture them back into black CPET trays.

‘Significant step forward’ for plastic recycling

Commenting on the trial, Andrew Speck, M&S’s Commercial and Environmental Packaging Manager, said: “Around 1.3 billion CPET trays are used in the UK every year and, whilst they offer great convenience for consumers, the recycling challenge results in unnecessary waste and technically recyclable material being missed. At M&S, we recognise that we have a very important role to play in resolving this, both by ensuring that we use packaging that is easy for our customers to recycle and by working across industries to find a viable solution.

“This trial highlights what can be achieved when all the relevant companies and bodies work together – all of us on the project team anticipate this will lead to a significant step forward for plastic recycling and progress for closed-loop systems. We look forward to sharing the findings of the trial in the near future.”

The trial will be running predominantly in South East England, in partnership with the Kent Resource Partnership. Councillor Paul Barrington-King, Chair of the Kent Resource Partnership, said: “This important partnership project between public and private sector organisations could mean all materials recycling facility operators install updated NIR technology so that the recycling of CPET trays becomes standard practice.  That has to be good news for councils when it comes to MRF contract specifications and value for money to taxpayers.”

A public report aimed to examine the sorting efficiency, carbon footprint reduction, disposal cost reduction and commercial viability of the scheme will be available once the trial is completed and a full review has been carried out.

Read more about the difficulties with recycling black plastic or WRAP’s search for alternatives.