FMCG and retail giants back £1M fund for flexible plastic recycling

Image of hand grabbing plastic bag — bringing flexi back to be recycled

Five of the UK’s biggest names in branded FMCG — Mars UK, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever — have come together to form a £1M fund to make flexible plastic recycling economically viable for recyclers and easier for consumers. A UK industry first, the Flexible Plastic Fund is being led by producer compliance scheme, Ecosurety, with award-winning environmental charity and social enterprise, Hubbub.

In collaboration with manufacturers, retailers and recyclers, the Fund intends to improve flexible plastic recycling and reduce plastic pollution by giving the material a stable value. This will in turn increase the supply of recycled plastic enabling industry to become more circular and meet the forthcoming UK plastic packaging tax obligations.

It is hoped that this shared commitment will help motivate investment in much-needed jobs and infrastructure to make flexible plastic recycling a financially sustainable system in the UK. 

Applauding the announcement of the Fund, UK Environment Minister Rebecca Pow says:

“Plastic pollution poses a major threat to our precious environment and wildlife, and that’s why the Government is committed to eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Through our plans for consistent recycling collections, extended producer responsibility for packaging manufacturers, a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, and a world-leading plastic packaging tax, we will go further and faster to recycle more plastic and throw less away.”

Mark Pawsey, MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Packaging Manufacturing Industry adds:

“It’s really encouraging to see some of the UK’s largest brands and retailers come together with the launch of the Flexible Plastic Fund. This will give flexible plastic recycling the kick-start it needs to be viable on a much larger scale.” 

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Tackling low collection rates and contamination risk

The initiative is expected to prove popular with the general public. New research from the University of Sheffield suggests there is strong consumer demand for recycling flexible plastic with 95% of participants saying they would be willing to recycle their flexible plastics.

Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have already signed up to support the initiative by hosting flexible plastic collection points in selected stores across the UK.

Signing-up sends out a signal, says Claire Hughes, Director of Production, Packaging & Innovation at Sainsbury’s:

“Joining the Fund will give our customers access to a flexible plastic recycling system that we can all have confidence in. As part of our commitment to reduce plastic packaging by 50% by 2025 across the Sainsbury’s business, we’re dedicated to working with our suppliers, manufacturers and third party organisations to continue exploring innovative ways to support a circular economy and to make it as easy as possible for our customers to recycle.”

The Fund could prove a turning point for flexible plastics, adds Marija Rompani, Director of Ethics & Sustainability at the John Lewis Partnership (the employee-owned parent company of the Waitrose brand):

“This initiative could be the springboard needed to change the way we handle flexible plastics in the UK, creating a recycling system that is both accessible to the public, circular and UK based. In support, we’re currently conducting a trial in 37 of our stores to allow customers to drop off their flexible plastics waste — from crisp packets to bubble wrap and cling film, which we hope will provide us with the intelligence needed to roll out more widely in the future.”

Several other major retailers are set to follow suit. As a result, recycling will become increasingly accessible to consumers, able to process all types of flexible plastic packaging with participating retailers. 

This is about stakeholders collaborating for the common good, says Trewin Restorick CEO and co-founder of Hubbub: 

“People are ready and willing to recycle their flexible plastics — we just have to make the infrastructure work. Collaboration is key to making this a success and we are urging more manufacturers to invest in the Fund, more retailers to collect flexible plastic for recycling and more recyclers to recycle flexible plastics.” 

However, with just 16% of UK local authorities currently offering household collection of flexible plastics, the amounts of this material collected for recycling are low. Flexible plastic represented 22% of all UK consumer plastic packaging in 2019, but only 6% was recycled. Flexible plastics include plastic bags, wrappers, films, pouches, packets and sachets and is described as ‘plastic bags and wrapping’, ‘soft plastics’ or ‘flexible plastics’.

This type of plastic must also be processed in a different way to other plastics due to its unique properties — it often contaminates rigid plastic recycling and clogs up machinery — something that could be overcome by creating a separate flexible plastic recycling stream. In response, the Fund will guarantee a minimum value of £100 per tonne of recycled product to incentivise recyclers to process flexible plastic.

The time has come for the market to change, says Robbie Staniforth Head of Innovation and Policy at Ecosurety:

“Historically the UK recycling system has not provided enough motivation to recycle flexible plastics. By creating a sustainable market for this material, longer term improvements can be made to ensure the flexible plastic that remains necessary for packaging is reliably recycled and eventually contributes to a circular economy, thereby tackling plastic pollution.

“We hope that by boosting this infrastructure, government and local authorities will be motivated to quickly facilitate flexible plastic recycling in the UK by making it easy for consumers to recycle via household collections in the future.” 

The long-term ambition of the Fund is to drive progress towards creating a circular, UK based flexible plastic recycling market that allows flexible plastic recycling via household collections. As part of the UK’s drive to boost recycling, WRAP recently announced new recommendations to support flexible plastic recycling. 

Traceable and tracked to be recycled, again and again

Importantly, the Fund will provide fully audited transparency — at least 80% of the plastics collected will be recycled in the UK — rising to 100% by 2023. Until 2023, where there are currently limits in UK capacity and technology, up to 20% could be exported to qualifying facilities in Europe only.

All material will be fully traceable and tracked from the collector through to new products. Unlike many other schemes, recyclers will only be paid if the plastic is definitely recycled. The manufacturers contributing to the Flexible Plastic Fund will then be able to access the Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) generated by this high- quality, tracked recycling scheme. 

The recycled plastic will be turned into a range of products including non-food grade plastic, non-food-grade film and food-grade film. Through its graded payment hierarchy, the Flexible Plastic Fund is actively incentivising the development of a circular model of production where flexible plastic packaging can be recycled into plastic packaging again and again. 

The Flexible Plastic Fund is calling for recyclers, manufacturers and retailers to get in touch to play their role in this vital scheme that is driving solutions to flexible plastic waste in the UK. The Fund is also being supported with additional communications funding from the British Plastics Federation, Bunzl and the Waitrose & Partners Plan Plastic Fund. 

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