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Around 1.3 billion ready meals are consumed in the UK every year, which equates to 30,000 tonnes of the black CPET material used to make ready meal containers. You might not have heard of CPET, but it is a clever type of plastic that retains its shape at very high temperatures, so it’s the perfect material to use in microwaves and ovens.

As we highlighted on the blog last year, CPET presents a big recycling challenge, as the black colour of the tray is not detectable with the optical sorting equipment used at plastic sorting facilities, and therefore most of these trays end up going to landfill. As the industry leader in prepared meals, we led a trial involving a number of key players from the packaging, recycling and retail world to try to resolve this issue. And I’m really pleased to be able to provide an update on the positive results of the trial.

The 6-month long trial set out to show that, if we changed the colourant in the trays, we could ensure they got detected by the waste separators, captured and processed for use as recycled material in new trays.

The project was by no means a simple one as it required the co-ordination of partners from the whole supply chain to get the 4 million detectable trays into production and used in M&S and Sainsbury’s prepared meals, sold in selected stores. The trays were then recovered from the waste stream before being washed, flaked and tested against the latest industry standard for inclusion into new trays. A trial of this scale presents some obvious challenges but we were determined to prove the case for recoverable CPET as the prize was so high. We gathered a huge amount of important data that proved it was possible and which has allowed us to draw up a realistic action plan to go live with these new detectable CPET trays as soon as practically possible.

So what was our motivation for getting involved? Well, we want our customers to feel confident that every time they put their ready meal tray in the recycling bin, it gets recycled. Under Plan A 2020, we are working with WRAP to ensure we use the most environmentally efficient forms of food packaging possible, and this presents the potential for us to reduce the use of virgin material and add 20% recycled content to the new trays without having any impact on their functionality or appearance.

The success of the trial demonstrates what can be achieved when a number of different organisations collaborate to tackle an industry wide problem and the learnings will be invaluable in plotting out the future steps for detectable black recovery. The next step for us is to work with our peers to look at how we can engage food manufacturers in switching to the detectable black trays and engaging with Local Authorities on how their waste collection services could capture the new trays.

The team have been fantastic and it’s really good that we can report a positive result from the trial - if we can find a workable solution, we could be looking at over a billion more pieces of food packaging being recycled every year.

A case study on the trial is now available on WRAP’s website.  

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