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Sustainable packaging manufacturers seek solution to recycling black plastics

2019-06-17 17:51 Monday

One of the world’s major household goods manufacturers, Unilever, has announced a new initiative aimed at raising the rate of recycling for its plastic bottle products.

According to a representative of the firm, the company is set to introduce a new type of black pigment for the High Polyethylene (HDPE) bottles produced for its personal care brands TRESemmé and Lynx.


Because of the small but significant change, the plastic bottles can now be detected by recycling scanners and can be sorted for recycling more easily.

It is predicted the move will allow an extra 2,500 tonnes of the bottles, which are more resistant to cold and heat compared to the more common PET plastic alternatives, to potentially be sorted and sent for reuse or recycling annually.

The new bottles will be introduced before the end of the year and will allow Unilever to “close the loop” in the circular economy even further, providing a boost to the growing list of green materials in the supply chain and the company’s green credentials.

In the same period, TRESemmé and Lynx will also both introduce a minimum of 30% recycled material into their packaging, according to officials.

Currently, ‘standard’ black plastic bottles, go undetected by sorting machines in recycling plants that rely on optical colours as they use near infra-red light, which is absorbed by the ‘carbon black’ pigment they contain.

This makes them “invisible” to sorting devices and results in them being rejected and sent for waste.

Unilever carried out trials for the scheme in partnership with RECOUP, and waste management partners Veolia, SUEZ, Viridor and TOMRA, which demonstrated that the new bottles can be technically detected at their material recycling facilities in the UK.

The knowledge from developing this green materials solution will be made available to others in the sector, as well as to other markets around the world.

In future, the trend could be followed by manufacturers in industries such as 3D printing or cosmetics, and provide a boost to functionality whilst leaving aesthetics, supply chains and product differentiation unaffected.

This move is part of Unilever’s commitment to the UK Plastics Pact, and its new “Get Plastic Wise” campaign, a five-point plan that aims to tackle plastic waste and move towards sustainability.

Unilever has committed to ensuring that, globally, all of their plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and to using more recycled plastic content in their packaging.

Stuart Foster, RECOUP’s chief executive, stated: “Through the commitment and leadership of Unilever, and with the support of the resource management industry, this is a fantastic example of how detectable pigments can be used to improve plastic packaging sortability and recyclability and shows what can be achieved through practical partnerships and real cross collaboration in supply chains.”

“Unsortable plastics, particularly the traditional carbon black packaging, has been one of the key interest areas for media, consumers and politicians in recent years. The sharing of data, knowledge and solutions was the focus of the RECOUP led Black Plastic Packaging Recycling Forum, and we encourage all manufacturers, brands and retailers to follow the leadership of companies, such as Unilever, and ensure that plastic packaging placed on the market can be recycled.”

Jürgen Priesters, VP and head of business development at TOMRA Sorting Recycling, a global company with offices in the U.S., Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, said the material was also successfully tested several times and approved at TOMRA’s Sorting test facility.

“With this development, Unilever has set a new standard that will massively increase recyclability without requiring existing sorting plants to invest billions of euros in technology. We do hope that others will follow such an innovative development and help all of us to achieve much higher, better recycling figures than today.”

In the UK, hard-to-recycle black plastics, straws and plastic cutlery are disappearing from supermarket shelves after the British charity WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) launched the Plastics Pact.

WRAP said plans by charter signatories included seeking refillable alternatives to plastic packaging, particularly for cleaning products; removing polystyrene and PVC from food packaging; and, by the end of 2020, from non-food products.

The Pact was set up in May 2018, signed by 40 businesses and supported by UK environment secretary Michael Gove.

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