Flexible Plastic Films – the last great recycling challenge?


flexible plastic fund

Gareth Morton, Flexible Plastic Fund spokesperson and Discovery Manager at Ecosurety, dives into the flexible plastic recycling problem: why is it so challenging and what’s the solution?

Flexible plastic packaging has many benefits: it’s durable, strong, hygienic, lightweight and, well, flexible both literally and in design terms. This makes it an ideal material to contain, transport, display and store all types of food and other products as it protects them from harm and reduces food waste which reduces carbon emissions.

However, recycling flexible plastic once it has been used is challenging for so many reasons and the recent news about YES Recycling in Scotland is an unfortunate but timely reminder of just how hard it can be to do it in a commercially sustainable way. In this piece, I’m going to explore some of the barriers along with initiatives to address them as well as discuss some of the key things that need to change.

Recycling flexible plastic once it has been used is challenging for so many reasons

Flexible plastic is light and voluminous which makes it difficult to handle. Although the industry has made great strides in moving towards mono-material packaging, it’s still a mix of polymers (mainly PE & PP) which can make it more challenging to recycle.

This means more effort and ingenuity are required for recycling which, in turn, impacts the economics, meaning it’s expensive to recycle. It’s hardly surprising then that, despite making up around 25% of all UK consumer packaging, only 8% is recycled. With the cards evidently so stacked against recycling this material, should we even bother? The answer is, for so very many reasons, a resounding yes. But how?

Recycling flexible plastics: what’s the solution?

flexible-plasticFaced with this issue, key players in the industry, including manufacturers and brands, stepped up to the challenge and set up the Flexible Plastic Fund (FPF) to give value to flexible plastics to enable them to be recycled appropriately. Collectively, the FPF is looking at the how.

The Fund was launched in 2021 and is collaboratively funded and supported by the following UK organisations: Abel & Cole, Ella’s Kitchen, Kiddylicious, Koninklijke Douwe Egberts, KP Snacks, Lotus Bakeries, Mars UK, McCain Foods, Mondelēz International, Natural Balance Foods, Nestlé, Ocado Retail, PepsiCo, The Collective, Unilever, United Biscuits and Vitaflo.

This unique stakeholder initiative is co-ordinated by Ecosurety, one the UK’s largest packaging compliance schemes which have been advocating for change in this sector for years.

The Fund currently has two initiatives: the FPF FlexCollect project which is preparing the UK for the collection of flexible plastics direct from households via local authority kerbside collections, and the Retail Support Mechanism which provides a financial “boost” per tonne to help make the recycling flexible plastics from retailer collection points financially viable.

The UK policy landscape conundrum

Nestle wrapper plastic

The resources and waste industry is doing what it can but the economics of plastic packaging recycling are often challenging due to high sorting costs and low material value.

What the industry needs, more than anything else, is a sensible, well-designed and well-run Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system for UK packaging and clarity over the required collection system (i.e. a consistent one) and how the payments will work from the EPR scheme administrator.

Under the proposed EPR legislation, UK-wide kerbside collections for flexible plastics are expected to become compulsory from March 2027. Along with consistent collections and the incentive provided by the Plastic Packaging Tax to include recycled content in packaging products, the scene should be set for a potential revolution in recycling.

However, of vital importance in all of this is whether EPR payments will be ring-fenced for infrastructure development.

However, of vital importance in all of this is whether EPR payments will be ring-fenced for infrastructure development or go into general local authority budgets to be used anywhere. This is a crucial missing piece of the jigsaw. Investment in infrastructure will only happen if it is economically viable and it will only be viable if the money flows back into the recycling system.

The industry has less than 4 years to prepare and EPR payments are supposed to start in less than a year but as yet, due to ongoing government delays, uncertainty, prevarication and frustration abound.

There are many initiatives underway within various segments of the industry from retailers and packaging manufacturers to reprocessors and technology developers but the main thing holding back any kind of real progress is the ongoing delay in policy implementation and the resulting lack of confidence.

Household collection pilots


A year ago, with around £3m funding, the FPF FlexCollect project came into being to generate data and insights to inform industry and government in advance of EPR and support the implementation of the new packaging EPR regime and consistent collections reform.

The project has been the principal focus for the FPF which is the majority funder, with the remaining funding coming from Defra, UKRI Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge and Zero Waste Scotland.

It runs until March 2025 and a consortium comprising Ecosurety, RECOUP, Suez Recycling & Recovery UK and WRAP, is responsible for its management and delivering the findings that will help shape the forthcoming policy landscape.

FPF FlexCollect was set up to understand how to collect and recycle post-consumer flexible plastic packaging at scale from householders. This is being done by running kerbside collection pilots with nine local authorities between 2022 and 2025 with the pilots investigating:

  • Operational approaches.
  • Communications, participation & contamination.
  • Sorting & reprocessing.
  • End markets & economics.

Three local authority pilots have been launched so far with Cheltenham Borough, South Gloucestershire and Maldon District Councils. Three further pilots are due to launch in 2023 and three more will launch in late 2023/early 2024. Initially, 5% of households within each local authority will have access to collections.

This will then increase to 25% and, for four of the councils in the programme, to 100% of households. We will be publishing an interim report at the end of this year, detailing the findings from the first year of the pilots and expect this will be eagerly anticipated by both industry and government.

What have we found out so far?

Plastic wrap

Collection is relatively easy – participation, quality and quantity are all good. The public like the service and, for the most part, deposit the correct material in the right way.

Sorting and managing the material once it’s collected is less easy. Separating it from the other recyclables is the first challenge. The second, depending on the final destination, is separating into different polymer or packaging types.

New technologies are being developed – some at a frantic pace to be ready in time – and end markets do exist but are still too small and are generally (but not exclusively) in lower-value applications such as plastic lumber or refuse sacks.

Some higher value and highly circular solutions do exist but there are barriers, such as the ineligibility of chemically recycled polymer to count as “recycled” for the purposes of the Plastic Packaging Tax – a tax specifically established to encourage the use of recycled plastic in packaging products.

Some higher value and highly circular solutions do exist but there are barriers.

The range of reprocessors and the scope of end markets, including increasing options for circularity, will expand over time as UK infrastructure becomes better able to handle flexible plastic packaging and this is one of the aims of the project – to enable reprocessors to literally get to grips with this material, assess it and work out what they need to do to prepare for the volume of flexible packaging that will be collected in the future.

Up until now, investment in sorting and reprocessing capability and capacity has been hampered because flexible plastic packaging is a challenging material with little perceived value.

This perception is not helped by the continuing uncertainty about the shape and timing of proposed changes to the policy landscape – an issue epitomised by the delay in the introduction of DRS in Scotland and the ongoing delay to the consistent collections consultation response. How can the industry prepare for new regulations if there is no confidence about when they will actually be introduced?

Solutions to flexible plastic recycling need policy clarification

Houses of Parliament

This has to change and that’s why the UK government must speed up its policy deliberations and provide much-needed clarity so the industry can make decisions to invest and develop the necessary infrastructure and end markets with confidence.

The only good piece of news recently is that government has finally heeded calls from industry and will consult on allowing a mass balance approach for calculating the proportion of recycled content in chemically recycled plastics, for the purposes of the Plastic Packaging Tax.

According to reports, the consultation will be launched later this year, but actually, it can’t happen soon enough as introducing this measure would significantly boost the demand and therefore recycling of flexible plastic films.

This policy clarification needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Taking all of the above into account, my last point is yet another important one. Knowing how long it usually takes to buy, manufacture, transport and build or install new facilities or equipment will be crucial. This policy clarification needs to happen sooner rather than later; otherwise, the transition, which will be challenging in the best of circumstances, could be chaotic.

We don’t want a repeat of the Australian experience, where flexible plastic recycling schemes struggled because they were rolled out in the absence of any government policy and before the necessary infrastructure and end markets were sufficiently developed.

Defra and ministers need to work with the resource and waste industry to make sure that the policy landscape and system design leads to the material steams we need for the circular economy and that the transition, when it comes, is an orderly one.

Got something to say on this article or topic? Submit your views and contact the editor at darrel.moore@ciwm.co.uk.

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