Continued developments around the world of plastics and packaging continue to advance recycling prospects include a newly announced breakthrough that makes black bottles sustainably greener.
A new detectable black pigment pioneered by Unilever (Rotterdam) for high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles for its leading brands, TRESemmé and Lynx, means the used personal care product bottles can be detected by recycling plant scanners to be sorted for recycling. The result? An additional 2,500 tonnes/2,756 tons of plastic bottles could now potentially be sorted and sent for recycling each year—equivalent to the weight of 1,250 family-sized cars. Scanners require only a minor adjustment, according to Unilever.
The company plans to phase in the new detectable bottles during 2019 so that Unilever can further “close the loop” by using the recycled black plastic back in new packaging. In 2019, TRESemmé and Lynx will both introduce a minimum of 30% recycled material into their packs.
Standard black plastic bottles go undetected by automatic optical sorting machines in recycling plants because they use near-infrared light, which is absorbed by the carbon black pigment traditionally used to color them. This effectively makes them invisible to the sorter and leads to their rejection into waste streams.
Carbon black solution found
In partnership with RECOUP and waste management partners Veolia, SUEZ, Viridor and TOMRA, Unilever has carried out extensive trials that proved the new pigment can be technically detected within their UK material recycling facilities.
The intellectual property from this technical solution will be made accessible to others in the industry and to other markets globally. We will be pleased to share our work and the insights generated with other manufacturers to enable wide use of this technology and approach.
This move to using the new detectable black plastic is part of Unilever UK’s commitment to The UK Plastics Pact and its new ‘Get Plastic Wise’ campaign, a Five Point Plastics Plan which aims to tackle plastic waste in the UK and move towards a closed loop where plastic stays within the plastic economy and does not leak out to the environment.
Sebastian Munden, General Manager of Unilever UKI, said: “Unilever has committed to ensuring that, globally, all of our plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and to using more recycled plastic content in our packaging. For the UK and Ireland we want to significantly accelerate this and we’re proud our innovation will help us towards achieving our aim, as well as making a significant contribution towards the UK Plastics Pact targets. We’d like to thank our industry partners for their part in working with us to make this possible.”
Select quotes from partners
A project of this scale required other stakeholders to participate; here are quotes from those contributing companies:
- “We have deployed an innovative solution within the software and invested in our sorting technology at our flagship recycling facility in Southwark and this, together with Unilever modifying the pigment in the black dye for their HDPE packaging, enables it to be successfully detected. If all recyclers and manufacturers follow this means black plastic becomes detectable black. It’s the first time a hi-tech solution like this has been applied to black plastics and can be rolled out at scale—a eureka moment for recycling and a rallying call for similar partnerships to take shape.”
—Richard Kirkman, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Veolia UK & Ireland.
- “Tackling plastic waste is complex and involves collaboration across the supply chain. We welcome this move by Unilever and steps taken by waste management companies to trial the sorting of the packaging. We now call for wide scale adoption of detectable black pigments by brands and retailers, and the sorting and reprocessing of that packaging by the recycling sector.”
—Helen Bird, Strategic Engagement Manager at WRAP, which manages The UK Plastics Pact.
- “Unsortable plastics, particularly the traditional carbon black packaging, has been one of the key interest areas for media, consumers and politicians in recent years. The sharing of data, knowledge and solutions was the focus of the RECOUP led Black Plastic Packaging Recycling Forum, and we encourage all manufacturers, brands and retailers to follow the leadership of companies, such as Unilever, and ensure that plastic packaging placed on the market can be recycled.”
—Stuart Foster, CEO, RECOUP
- “The collaboration with Unilever—which saw the HDPE bottles trialled at Rochester Polymers Recycling Facility—was an excellent example of how sectors could work together to help the UK achieve its circular economy ambitions.”
—Phil Piddington, Viridor’s Managing Director
- “In collaborating, the value chain is starting to show what is possible. We look forward to continuing to work on this project to see how these materials can successfully be collected, sorted and recycled into new Unilever products within the existing or future mainstream waste management systems.”
—Stuart Hayward-Higham, Technical Development Director at SUEZ
- “Because carbon black plastic packaging items account for 3-6% of all plastic packaging products, we are talking about a significant amount of material not being recycled today. We do hope that others will follow such an innovative development and help all of us to achieve much higher, better recycling figures than today.”
—Jürgen Priesters, VP and Head of Business Development at TOMRA Sorting Recycling