One year after the launch of the Flexible Plastic Fund (FPF), Gareth Morton from Ecosurety reflects on the achievements and challenges encountered so far on the journey to make flexible plastic recycling commercially viable and more transparent in the UK.
With the help of Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo, and Unilever, and supported by environmental charity Hubbub, the Flexible Plastic Fund was launched in May 2021, with the ambition to provide a stable value for one of the most challenging to recycle materials, flexible plastic packaging, by creating a £1m fund to support reprocessors to recycle it, provided they can prove they have done so.
In the past year, we have been buoyed up by the growing number of retailers offering or expanding soft plastics collection in store. There are now more than 4,000 stores in the UK that have installed dedicated bins to respond to customers’ demand for solutions to the growing amount of plastic packaging waste they can’t recycle at home.
Flexible plastics represent around a quarter of all plastic packaging placed on the market, as it is still often the best solution to safely and securely package products, due to its lightweight, protective and sealing properties. However, it has also become the most visible packaging material that the majority of UK citizens still can’t recycle from their homes.
Whilst manufacturers are working on reducing the amount of plastic they place on the market by developing more sustainable alternatives, developing flexible plastic packaging recycling in the meantime is critical.
Conscious of this growing issue and the need to act, the government recently announced its decision to roll out flexible plastic collection from households by March 2027. As a result, there is much-overdue attention being focused on this challenging material.
However, we haven’t been the only ones focusing on this thorny topic and not all the attention has been positive and constructive. There are regular stories about UK plastics littering countries across the globe, fueling a growing lack of consumer confidence in recycling and damaging the image of the recycling industry. There is no doubt that this is an issue of concern and it is a significant reason why the FPF was established.
So, what has the Flexible Plastic Fund been doing?
Since its launch, the FPF has been busy. The number of FPF partners has tripled, with fifteen other organisations joining the five founding partners, all eager to be part of the solution by investing in the Fund.
These twenty businesses overcame the challenge of joining forces with their direct competitors, to work collaboratively to make an impact on flexible plastic recycling. More businesses are waiting to join but recruitment has been paused to enable us to focus on delivering the Fund’s objectives.
We have been working in the background with manufacturers, retailers, recyclers, and industry stakeholders to understand how we could make our ambition – to get more flexible plastic actually recycled – a reality.
Have we succeeded? Not yet, but we have made progress and the issues we are championing – recycling challenging flexible plastics, transparent and auditable recycling routes, better economics, improving technology, and expanding capacity – are much higher on the agenda. As one founding member of the FPF put it: “If it was easy, it would have been done already”.
We learnt that whilst lots of manufacturers are keen to help, there are multiple, interconnected barriers to making the recycling of flexible plastics commonplace. The multi-polymer and multi-material nature of flexible plastics is one barrier, as it makes it tricky for recyclers to sort and process them.
Contamination from food residues adds to the problem, necessitating extra washing and even pre-sorting before the material gets anywhere near machinery to recycle it. This adds significantly to the costs and therefore raises the financial barrier as well.
Addressing contamination and the multi-material nature of flexible plastics requires specialist washing, sorting and recycling technologies that are seldom found in the UK. Unfortunately, this means energy from waste has been the most likely end destination for a lot of UK collected flexible plastics, which is not what the Fund members are striving towards.
We have deepened our understanding of the existing industrial ecosystem by engaging and building trust with retailers and recyclers, identifying what stops them from recycling and exploring ways to collaborate to attain our common goal: making flexible plastic recycling commercially viable.
One of the challenges they face is the volumes being collected.
Despite there now being thousands of collection points nationally, the amounts collected have so far been relatively small and far greater amounts are required to improve the economics. The steady expansion of collection points and WRAP’s recent ‘Repeat the cycle’ campaign is helping to increase volumes, but more is required.
With this in mind, we are reviewing our funding mechanism to make it more financially attractive to recyclers, so they invest in new machinery and capacity here in the UK.
We have also made progress on the challenging issue of traceability. Transparency and trust are key in order to know what happens to the flexible plastic once it is collected in-store. With our partner Greenback, we have developed a unique certification platform in order to track the collected material and certify when it has finally been recycled.
Currently being trialled by retailers Abel & Cole and Pets at Home, and their recycling partners, users upload evidence detailing where materials go, and when and how recycling has taken place – prerequisite conditions for reprocessors to access financial support from the Fund. When we are fully satisfied with the platform’s performance we will open it up to all interested UK retailers and recyclers.
In addition to the certification platform checks, there will be on-site audits. Furthermore, because of the inherent issues tracking material too far down reprocessing chains or too far overseas, it is our firm position not to support, under any circumstances, any recycling beyond Europe.
Whilst we are proud of having facilitated the cooperation between competitive manufacturers for the ‘greater good’, we are also aware that it is not enough. To accelerate our progress and make a meaningful impact on flexible plastic recycling in the UK, we need greater collaboration with recyclers and retailers in order to share more openly our learnings and challenges around end-markets, recycling solutions, and supply chains.
Confidential contractual agreements between retailers and recyclers often make open sharing of progress with the Fund difficult, which in turn slows down our ability to help them to achieve our common goal.
However, creating a proper flexible plastic recycling system in the UK is not a race that one organisation can win alone, and the perspective of getting a competitive advantage is limited and short-sighted.
As the African proverb says: “Alone we go faster, together we go further”.
Whilst progress is slow but sure on the retail collections front, we have also started to tackle the longer term aim of collecting flexible plastic film at scale from households with our Flexible Plastic Fund FlexCollect project. Currently, only 12% of councils collect this material from the kerbside, which means that the huge majority of local authorities have yet to introduce this service, find reprocessors and end markets solutions – something they will have to do by the time EPR is fully introduced in March 2027.
Working closely with leading industry organisations such as Defra, UKRI SSPP, SUEZ, RECOUP, LARAC, and WRAP, as well as some of the UK’s leading manufacturers, this £2.9 million project will pilot household collections and the recycling of flexible plastic packaging with 9 different local authorities over 3 years. We will openly share our learnings around operational issues, yields and recyclability, as well as effective communications with residents, to help local authorities prepare for the roll out.
After 12 months of intense work and some tough learnings, we are now ready and excited to face the next 12 months of intense discussion and closer collaboration that will get us nearer to our goal of making flexible plastics recycling in the UK a reality.