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Once you have finished enjoying a tasty ready meal and tossed the tray in the recycling, you probably don’t give much thought to what happens next. But behind the scenes, there is a big recycling challenge that we are trying to resolve.

The tray your ready meal comes in is known in the industry as a black CPET tray – CPET is a type of plastic that retains its shape at very high temperatures, so it’s the perfect material to use in microwaves and ovens, and around 1.3 billion of these  trays are used in the UK every year. Whilst these are really convenient for customers and are recyclable, the trays have proven to be a huge challenge for the UK recycling industry, as the black colour of the tray is not detectable with the optical sorting equipment used at plastic sorting facilities. Unfortunately, this means that they are often missed and end up in landfill or being processed into energy, which is really frustrating for consumers who are trying to do the right thing. 

We have a really important role to play in resolving this, both by continuing to ensure that we use packaging that is easy for our customers to recycle and by finding a solution to the problem. So I have been working with a representatives from across the UK’s packaging, retail and recycling industries to devise a way of trialling a new type of black CPET tray, which uses an alternative black colourant that has shown to be able to be detected and separated for recycling.

One of our packaging manufacturers, Faerch Plast, has made around 2 million of these new trays which we will be using across our ready meals range, and Sainsbury’s will be doing the same. These meals will then be sold across the UK in M&S and Sainsbury’s stores over a four week period, with a high density in the South East of England, where the recovery of the trays is planned to take place.

Waste collectors Biffa will take a lead in using detection technology reprogrammed to sort the trays and plastic recycling experts Nextek will assist with the automatic sorting, as well as supervising the recycling and decontamination of the material. Then Faerch Plast will get involved again with assessing the recycled material to see if it can be manufactured back into black CPET trays.

The implications for this trial are significant – if we can find a workable solution, we could be looking at over a billion more pieces of food packaging being recycled every year.

With such a complicated chain, reaching our goal is only possible if every player at every step of the process gets involved, and this trial highlights what can be achieved when we all work together. All of us on the project team believe that this will lead to a significant step forward for plastic recycling and progress for closed loop systems. I want our customers to know they are making a difference every time they put something in the recycling bin and I look forward to sharing the findings of the trial in the near future.

The project team consists of: WRAP, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Faerch Plast,  the Kent Resource Partnership, Biffa Waste Management, Recoup (RECycling Of Used Plastics Limited), and Nextek Limited.

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