Plastic film and its ‘sticky’ journey to reprocessing

Resource Futures environmental consultants, Jenny Robinson (CIWM Fellow) and Pete Wills, unpick the issues and potential solutions for the collection, handling, sorting and processing of plastic film.

The lively discussions around the recent Defra consultations on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) and Collections Consistency involve the mandatory inclusion of plastic film in separate collections from households and businesses.

While there is much industry and public support for the inclusion of plastic film, there are numerous ‘sticky’ practical issues that we – the waste management industry – must collaboratively solve to ensure successful inclusion.

Communication and terminology

What should we call this type of plastic so that householders and business owners understand what to do with it?

‘Film’, ‘flexible’, ‘soft’, ‘floppy’? What term would best communicate how to separate it and what container to put it in? We recently tested out ‘floppy’ in a plastic packaging group; it didn’t run!

What’s complicated, is that when talking about ‘plastic film’, ‘flexible plastic’ or ‘soft plastic’, we’re not talking about one single thing. Polyethylene and polypropylene films, made from a single polymer, are the most common type of plastic packaging film.

Others include multiple layers of other types of plastic film including PET and Nylon (Polyamide – PA). Particulate coatings of aluminium, just microns thick, make up the familiar mirror shine inside plastic-based crisp packets, while whole layers of aluminium are used in laminated drink and pet food pouches. How can we expect consumers to recognise this wide and complex range of plastic film types?

Yes, additional layers in different combinations add strength and help keep in (or out) moisture, gases and odours, protecting products and extending their shelf life, but these multi-layers of different types of plastic film cause problems for sorting and processing.

What’s certain, is the need for terminology and messaging to be consistent and as simple as possible. So, for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll stick with ‘plastic film’.


Should the introduction of collections start at separate times, or at the same time, for households and businesses?

Proposals have been put forward to collect non-household municipal (NHM) waste from businesses earlier than households, with a target date of 2024/25. For household waste, it has been proposed that plastic film collections be phased in across England by the date that reforms to EPR commence, with a defined ‘end date’ of financial year 2026/27.

Will these different start dates be difficult to manage? A similar start date, plus a reasonable target date which both local councils and businesses can meet, could help to give the industry the focus it needs to plan infrastructure, handling and reprocessing capability.

What could the whole industry agree to? Sometime around 2025/26 perhaps, allowing more time for the potential impacts of the Plastic Packaging Tax to be understood?

In the meantime, the introduction of retailer-led, front-of-store plastic film collections – as outlined in the UK Plastic Pact 2025 Roadmap – will allow some plastic film to be recycled. In 2020/21, we’ve seen a number of supermarkets launch large-scale trials for all plastic film take backs. These trials are a vital testbed and a first step in expanding capacity to deal with these materials and testing outputs of the processes.

Storage and presentation

Plastic film has low bulk density, is difficult to compact, and is at risk of being blown away if not contained securely.

How should households store plastic film and how should they present it at the kerbside?

Defra’s Collections Consistency consultation recommended plastic film be collected separately from other recyclable materials, so let’s assume that’s what will happen.

Plastic film has interesting properties: low bulk density, difficult to compact, and at risk of being blown away by the lightest breeze if not contained securely. Storing film in a container or bag therefore seems essential.

However, storing film loose in a kerbside bin or box could be problematic when sorting at the kerbside due to the aforementioned light breeze risk; instead, could film be stored ready for collection in a separate sacrificial sack that is then tied and put in the top of a wheeled bin or a box with sufficient capacity?

For flat residents, a communal locked bin specifically for plastic film, with a small, bag-sized aperture, could work well. Residents would likely need something to put the plastic film in (a sack?), to contain it in the home and also prevent its escape on the way to the communal bin or when emptied into the collection vehicle. Should it be down to local authorities to provide these sacks?

How about commingling within existing streams? Could plastic film be securely stored and presented within a plastic bottles and cans stream for example? The same flyaway litter issue remains however, and loose film with food residue risks contaminating paper and fibre grades. Another compelling reason to keep film separate in its own sack.

Collection vehicle types and loading

How should plastic film be loaded onto collection vehicles and what types of vehicles are suitable?

Perhaps first we need to look at the volume and weight of plastic film that a household would produce per week. Will fortnightly recycling collection systems be able to cope with two weeks of film generated by the average household?

In our experience of waste composition, the weekly arising of film per household will likely be in the high hundreds of grams range rather than kilograms, but it is a bulky material. Separately collected without the natural compaction of heavier materials in the residual waste could easily translate into several carrier bags per large family household each week.

A current unknown in managing vehicle capacity is participation. How many households will separate and present their film when given the opportunity? How will this vary depending on the collection system and the demographic makeup of an authority?

Some kerbside collection trials for plastic film have used a designated caged vehicle; this gets around the issue of bags being torn by a recycling lorry compaction blade, but it’s not an efficient way to collect a large volume of material from multiple collection rounds.

There is the point that a reverse vending machine DRS for drink containers will free up capacity on vehicles. But unless we opt for another designated collection vehicle, or retrofit existing vehicles, the longer-term option to manage capacity for film could be to further reduce collection round sizes and increase the vehicle fleet for the broader service offering.

Material delivery

What are the impacts on delivery points for plastic film?

Managing collected plastic film will necessitate reconfiguration of recycling depots and waste transfer stations across the country. If nothing else, an additional storage bay will be needed for all sites. For smaller transfer stations with limited space, baling or compaction will be needed.

Once baled, further storage space will be needed to gather bales for onward haulage to be worthwhile and cost-effective. Other sites may opt to feed the bags into a roll-on-off skip fitted with a compactor or similar.

Another good reason to bag plastic film at the point of collection is the ease of handling and processing later on. While metal cans make nice solid bales, which can easily be handled and stacked, loose film would be a different matter, even bagged, film makes loose bails which are harder to handle.

Sorting technology

What are the impacts on material recovery facilities (MRFs) and sorting technologies?

Two vital and interlinked steps are building capacity to handle and separate plastic film into a quality recycled product and strengthening the market for plastics recycled from film.

MRFs will need to ensure their tipping halls have sufficient capacity for plastic film, including areas where separation for sampling can take place. To get quality in separation, it’s likely that new film-specific facilities will be needed in time, particularly in geographical locations where there aren’t large MRFs which can be modified.

The possible gap we need to bridge is in the reprocessors’ confidence that drivers – such as EPR reforms and the tax on virgin plastic – will increase the ease of recycling at these facilities and the market demand for recycled plastic film, so they can justify investment in the technologies required to separate plastic film.

Circularity and beyond

There are many issues to resolve in the journey of plastic film from households and businesses to the reprocessor, but the market is getting ready for it. As well as EPR acting as a push, the plastics tax and modulated fees act as a pull on materials through the system.

Along with this, the design and composition of plastic packaging is changing, driven by public awareness, pressure and industry responses.

Technological developments and the ability to deal with hard-to-recycle plastics will hopefully assist with recycling more materials, rather than brands being tempted to create even more complex packaging.

It will be increasingly important for brand, packaging, waste and reprocessing industries to work collaboratively on realistic solutions which improve the transition to circularity for this incredibly versatile but tricky group of materials.

We need to be aware of how to limit adverse unintended consequences of changes to packaging and its processing across all parts of the waste management industry, whether collection, handling, sorting or processing.

In the coming years, the voice of our sector might need to shout a bit louder about some of the more persistent issues that prove harder to resolve. To do this we need to continue having lively but informed discussions, so that through our collaboration, we fully understand the impact of our actions and response to change.

Resource Futures

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