Time to de-mystify plastic film

2 October 2020

When it comes to maximising recycling capture rates for weight-based metrics, it’s fair to say most of the low hanging fruits have already been taken. Collection and processing systems are long established and methods of maintaining and improving quality are widely employed. But when we switch the perspective to the volume of materials, the recyclability of materials such as plastic film rises to the fore.

Recycling of plastic film remains a relatively untapped area in part due to the complexity and combinations of plastic types (polymers) currently in use across the market and the challenges they present. Plastic films behave in a different way to rigid plastics and combined with the complexity of varieties on the market, the processing remains a significant challenge for both collection systems and processers.

In order to treat these materials as a viable resource there is a need to build greater understanding around the range and mix of these polymers, including why they are used, in order to find ways to recycle them or to switch to alternatives.

Resource Futures are now able to use advanced technology to help identify post-production and post-consumer plastics in the field. Pete Wills, Senior Consultant at Resource Futures, has been looking at the emerging opportunities made available by this technology, considering the challenges for the waste sector and the solutions that will improve their identification and thus aid their sorting, disposal and routes to recycling.

New technology will enable more detailed identification of post-consumer plastics

Challenges and changes

Metrics including Carbon and ‘use-phase’ thinking are helping to steer companies to select the right plastic materials for both products and their packaging. For the thin and often overlooked layer of plastic film, particularly for those protecting our food, their use is a balancing act of matching necessary qualities like offering protection during transit through rigidity, strength and flexibility while maintaining a good shelf life for the product within, to allow longevity and the avoidance of wastage.

These product-centric challenges have been overcome with technological improvements in packaging technology and design, but all too often the wider, environmental impact has been of secondary or minor concern.

In the UK, the forthcoming revision to extended producer responsibility (EPR) will hopefully recognise (and capitalise) on the increased consumer awareness with governmental drive for change. The move to a more circular economy for packaging will need to be pragmatic and include steps to both design out waste and target more materials. This will need to involve not only producers, packaging converters, customers, local authorities and logistics companies, but ultimately also the waste management companies who take on the responsibility to collect, sort, recover and recycle these resources.

Approaching plastics with greater understanding

One UK company already producing new plastic from old is Recycling Technologies. Their chemical recycling technology takes plastics such as film and laminated plastics and turns this plastic waste into chemical feedstock for plastic production.

But when it comes to understanding the next steps for plastic films, the current production, usage and in-country recycling systems form the vital context and starting point to give direction to future changes.

Resource Futures are using advanced technology to identify post-production and post-consumer plastics in the field. We use the latest Near InfraRed (NIR) technology to separate materials by polymer type; each polymer has a different ‘signature’ according to its wavelength and these signatures are pre-loaded into an Analyser, creating a library of plastic polymer types. The Analyser is a portable device, ideal for fast identification of materials in the field, eliminating the need for lab testing. It can be used anywhere – from a sorting facility to back in the office using transported or posted samples.

The Near InfraRed Plastics Analyser, used to identify polymer types in the field

We are currently embarking on a large scale, European study to gain comprehensive understanding of the proportions of different polymer types of plastic films found within waste and recycling streams. An important focus will be on multilayer plastic packaging; using the analyser to identify these complicated films will build a better picture of the prevalence of the different polymers in our waste streams. Through this work we are already extending our body of knowledge around plastic film and have identified an extensive database of variants through our knowledge of the relevant distinct signatures.

For more information on how the Plastics Analyser works see our Fact Sheet here.

Benefits to the waste and recycling industry

With nearly two decades of experience in developing bespoke and representative studies to assess the composition of recycling, waste and material streams across the UK for clients in a range of sectors, such as our work in Wales and London, we are excited by the new opportunities this technology presents, including

  • Understanding what plastic film polymer types are within feedstocks
  • Assessing the viability of introducing film separation
  • Fine tuning sorting operations to identify greater volumes of film
  • Opening up of new markets for increased revenue

The team at Resource futures will be using the Analyser in the field on waste and recycling composition work to identify plastics by their different polymer types. Many are single polymer films made of only one type of plastic, but around 20% of packaging films are multi-layered, combined together in 4, 5 or even 6 layers to make use of their different properties, such as strength or stretchiness or as a barrier layer to retain or keep out moisture or odours.  

Crisp packets, cheese wrappers, coffee bags and plastic film bags used for long-life goods, tend to be made up of these multi-layer films which are currently difficult or impossible to recycle without knowing their composition. The Analyser will enable a fuller understanding of the combinations of materials commonly appearing within household waste streams. The benefit of this increased understanding is that Resource Futures can then provide a summary of the most suitable recycling methods.

And as the desire to include greater proportions of recycled content in plastic products grows ever greater, the recovery of these newly analysed plastic films could well provide that content.

Closer to home, the Analyser would be of great benefit for local authorities at sorting sites, transfer stations or HWRCs where unmarked products can cause a headache for the operatives.

Trying to identify the polymer in everything from a bread bag to a piece of carpet to a disposable plastic glove is just about to get a whole lot easier.

Many different organisations are already on the road to challenging their existing use of plastics, but there will be questions to answer which should be backed up by data and an understanding of the plastics in question.

When it comes to the excessive use of plastic, more of us than ever will agree that change is needed; that it’s needed and sooner rather than later; and that now is the time to prioritise reductions in environmental impacts over the facilitation of consumer convenience.