Is Sustainable The New Black?

Sarah Heald, director of corporate affairs and investor relations at the Pennon Group – owner of Viridor recycling, energy recovery and waste management – talks about the power of perfect packaging…

Image courtesy of WRAP


We are all acutely aware of the power of the perfect packaging – the unmistakable allure of an object set against a shiny, dramatic, black background.

Black plastic packaging puts the product at centre stage and manufacturers and retailers quite rightly don’t want to lose the eye-catching impact this delivers. Inviting to consumers, it is certainly good for business, isn’t it?

At Viridor we think the force of the public desire to recycle may challenge the status quo. Consider this, as you serve up a ready meal from this clever container: would you like a cup of coffee to go with that?

We ask, because one of the things we learnt last year was how hard it is to recycle takeaway coffee cups. Once this was revealed, there was a huge surge in consumer support for change as part of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “War on Waste” campaign. We think it could be the same story with black plastic.

Hugh shouted his slogan, “Wake Up And Smell The Waste”, last year when he took to the streets of London with a double-decker bus adorned with 10,000 empty takeaway coffee cups. This really caught public attention.

It encouraged the coffee companies to accelerate their response to the issue and, in many cases, offer an incentive to customers to use travel mugs or return single-use cups for specialist recycling.

Back to plastics, and the importance of being seen, because being seen is the crucial issue here. At the moment, while the carbon black used in black plastics may grab the attention of customers on the supermarket shelves, it’s invisible where it counts. It is invisible to the infra-red scanners used by the recycling industry to sort plastics.

The Tray Waste Mountain

To try and address this issue, Viridor began working with packaging specialist Nextek to find an innovative way to sort the supermarket food tray waste mountain into valuable recycled material.

Nextek has been testing its new version of nearly black plastic at Viridor plants in order to come up with a persuasive option for retailers and manufacturers; they are confident they have found a solution. This is a technology which, according to Nextek, can work immediately in virtually all recycling facilities across the UK, Europe and the USA.

The partnership was recently showcased in front of BBC viewers on The One Show. The programme revealed what we at Viridor have known for some time: the public have a real appetite to recycle, but with differing rules on what can be recycled where (councils operate circa 400 different systems across the UK), people are confused and frustrated. In addition, they are disappointed to discover that black plastic packaging they had carefully separated and put in their recycling bins is not actually being recycled.

While recycling is a real UK success story, recycling rates in England are stalling, down 0.7 percent in the last year to 43 percent, innovation is badly needed.

Viridor UK’s Recycling Index 2016 revealed 63 percent of UK consumers are concerned that different councils collect waste in different ways and 73 percent want more transparency on what happens to their waste.

What we need now is to determine what should change and where. Should the change happen at the source, with manufacturers and retailers producing packaging which is easily detectable? Or should all the individual recycling plants around the UK be required to invest in costly new detection equipment?

The public will demand change. This is going to be the subject of many more discussions in the recycling, packaging and retail sectors. One thing is for certain. Black plastic might be appealing to consumers now, but increasingly what consumers find most attractive and hard to resist is the knowledge that packaging can be reused, recycled and diverted away from landfill.


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