Some experts are worried that recycling labelling proposals from the UK Government risk disrupting the paper recycling stream. There is also worry that shutting out much-needed innovation might provide a route to genuine recycling with the increased use of coated paper.

This is the warning from Aquapak, a polymer technology specialist. Aquapak recently published a new white paper on how recyclability can be designed into fibre-based packaging using fully soluble bio-digestible barrier systems. (Access the white paper here.)

According to a press release, the pressure on brands and retailers to reduce plastic use has meant a drive towards paper-based packaging. This has a good pedigree when it comes to sustainability and recycling and is perceived positively by consumers. However, the coatings required to give paper the packaging functionality required for food, drink and household goods, are not easily recyclable. This means that the coated paperboard is often rejected from recycling plants because paper mills cannot process the paper and plastic combinations. Instead, they are incinerated or sent to landfill.

Aquapak is concerned that the current labelling proposals are a compromise to continue the use of existing materials, but are not enough to drive real change and improve recycling rates. This is because the recyclability definitions have the potential to shut out much-needed innovation, which can provide a route to genuine recycling even with the increased use of coated paper.

It is, therefore, calling on the Government to consider an alternative model to the ‘percentage plastic used’ in paper packaging. An example of this is the percentage of paper recovered model favored by Italy and Germany. This will encourage the design of paper and board-based packaging for recycling and supports the circular economy by keeping more paper fiber in use. (Maybe glass is a better alternative to both plastic and paper?)

Official Comment

John Williams, Chief Technical Officer at Aquapak and co-author of the first in this series of white papers on this subject, comments: “It is very positive that the Government is looking at material waste streams but there is a risk that the one-size fits all approach will mean a disconnect between what recyclability means and what is physically possible to recycle.

“We are concerned that items under the percentage will now be considered recyclable, skewing recycling figures and leaving the paper mills to deal with more rejects and waste. The ‘fully recyclable’ claim effectively becomes ‘green wash’ — as even paper combined with a very low levels of unrecyclable plastic will be rejected.

“The industry needs to choose the right materials in the first place and construct materials differently to provide the functionality needed, but also with end of life and 100 percent recyclability in mind. This creates the genuine circular economy and value chain.”

Key Findings

Highlights of the white paper include:

  1. There is a need to focus on existing solutions to recycling and using established infrastructure more effectively.
  2. The industry needs to change materials but still provide completely functional packaging in terms of product protection, safety and ease of use.
  3. Packaging needs to be recognizable to the consumer as recyclable and accepted by collection schemes.
  4. There needs to be value/financial incentive for the waste industry — it needs to be easy to separate and then sold to paper mills who can then claim 100 percent of the fiber back, completing the circular economy.
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