The problem with plastic film recycling

Written by: Lee Bradbury | Published:
At Casepak’s Leicester MRF, each tonne of material contains approximately 1.95% of unwanted plastic film contaminant

As more of us aim to do our bit for the environment by recycling as much as we can, many people are still left confused about what can and can’t be recycled.

The recycling sector faces a constant problem with contamination by materials that can’t be recycled being mixed up with recyclates.

Plastic film and bags are among the most frequent causes of contamination, although other items such as crisp packets, dirty nappies and unwashed glass jars or plastic tubs are also an issue. Each of these items jeapordises the percentage of material the recycling sector can recover, as contaminated batches are frequently rejected or need to be resorted.

Plastic bags are made from thin flexible sheets of plastic film, typically less than 10mm thick. When these thin plastic films enter a conventional materials recycling facility (MRF), they can seriously harm the efficient operation of plant and machinery. The composition of films and their high tensile strength means that such materials can quickly become wrapped or tangled around moving or revolving machinery.

At Casepak’s Leicester MRF, each tonne of material contains approximately 1.95% of unwanted plastic film contaminant. While that figure may seem small, it has a huge impact on operations. As a result, we have had to employ a series of counter-measures to mitigate contamination at the MRF.

At the start of the sorting process, plastic film is handpicked out of the recycling stream. While the additional labour is costly, particularly as the recovered film is of little value, it is vital to remove such material as early as possible. If a film bag is missed by pickers at the start of the process, it can get wrapped around the MRF’s fibre sorting screens further down the line.

When the screens become blocked by the plastic film, their ability to sort materials effectively is reduced, which diminishes material quality over time as the instances of contamination increase. In extreme cases, the screens become severely blocked and need thorough cleaning, which causes plant downtime.

For the MRF to run efficiently, it is essential that the volume of plastic film in the recycling stream is substantially reduced. With many councils operating different collection schemes for plastic recycling, it is no wonder that confusion abounds among households and businesses as to what materials can be recycled.

Furthermore, these different schemes mean that MRF operators working with a variety of local authorities must process recyclates that are collected via different systems, and with varying levels of contamination.

At the MRF we have seen that plastic film is more prominent in loads that come from local authorities where the material is collected in bags, which inevitably find their way into the recycling stream. Much more could be done to support operators like Casepak and help MRFs get the very best quality material, particularly if the ambitious aims of the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy are to be realised.

A solution to this problem would be for the government to implement a universal recycling system, whereby the current postcode lottery of what can and can’t be recycled is scrapped and replaced with a uniform collection scheme nationwide.

This would help households and businesses to know exactly what materials should be disposed of in their recycling, and it would enable local authorities and the recycling sector to work together to maximise the volumes and quality of materials.

To tackle plastic contamination, all recycling should be collected as loose, co-mingled material, to ensure that fewer plastic bags can enter the recycling stream in the first place.

The UK also needs more advanced secondary market infrastructure in place to deal with hard-to-recycle items such as plastic film. Some supermarkets do offer film and plastic bag recycling at their stores, and widespread adoption of such schemes should be encouraged to help reduce the volume of plastic film entering the recycling stream.

After all, it’s not just MRFs that face the challenge of dealing with plastic film in the recycling stream. It has an adverse effect on the wider reprocessing sector, as the quality of the material supplied can be compromised by contamination, affecting the price for secondary commodities.

Recyclers and end processors rely on getting the highest quality materials. If we are to realise the goal of a circular economy for waste in the UK then it is essential that the sector is given the support it needs to maximise the quality of recycled materials it receives.

A key step is to make recycling simple and straightforward for consumers and businesses, both to increase the volume of materials that are recycled, and to ensure that everybody understands what materials can be recycled.

Confusion leads to contamination, and by making the process easier to understand, with a universal collection system, we can all work to reduce the volume of plastic film and other contaminants entering the recycling stream.

Lee Bradbury, operations manager at Casepak’s Leicester MRF

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