Nature and Biodiversity

Why is black plastic packaging so hard to recycle?

Plastic and other debris are seen on the shores of Montesinos beach, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas - RC1D7B8E3740

Black plastic packaging is hard to recycle. Image: REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Plastic Pollution

  • Black plastic is recyclable, but waste sorting systems can’t recognize black pigments.
  • Even if black plastic is separated, it often ends up in landfill.
  • Major UK supermarkets have pledged to stop using black plastic for their own product ranges.

You might have already used black plastic this week without thinking about it – but did you know it almost never gets recycled?

Frequently used by the food-packaging industry, black plastic is cheap and the dark background makes food look more appealing to consumers.

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But the optical sorting systems used at many recycling plants can’t pick out the black pigment in the plastic. As a result, much of it remains unsorted and ends up in landfill.

Black plastic packaging is destined for landfill
This black plastic packaging is hard to recycle. Image: WRAP

The material is so hard to recycle that some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets have pledged to stop using it in their own product ranges by the end of 2019, with others set to follow by the end of 2020.

While the label on the black plastic package might say it can be recycled, and you might put it in the correct bin, after it reaches the recycling centre it's likely to end up in a landfill.

 Summary of trial results for Sicopal, Lumogen, carbon black, Colour Tone and ColorMatrix colourants
Recycling sorting machines can’t identify black plastic. Image: WRAP

The chart above shows how Near Infrared (NIR) sorting systems can detect other dyes, but not carbon black.

Problem plastics

Plastic waste is polluting our ecosystems. About 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans every year.

But despite the growing environmental threat from plastic waste, only 14% of plastic packaging worldwide is collected for recycling.

The world of plastic, in numbers
World production of plastics Image: The Conversation

Greenpeace says changing recycling systems to detect black plastic would take “a lot of time and money.” It argues a simpler solution would be for the UK government to ban the use of “problem plastics,” including black plastic, PVC and expanded polystyrene.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

“They’re outdated, hazardous and easily replaceable with better alternatives,” the organization says on its website.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityGlobal Risks
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