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Foodservice packaging creating problems at paper mills

Sandwich wrappers, insulated food delivery packaging, coffee bags and soft drink cups from fast food outlets are clogging up paper mills, according to research by DS Smith.

The packaging firm, which recycles a third of all paper in the UK, has published the ‘dirty dozen’–a list of items put in the paper recycling stream that are particularly hard to recycle.

Other items on the list include pulp fruit trays, which are not suitable for recycling because of the low-quality, weak fibres used to make them.

Meanwhile, food trays, food cartons and wrappers tend to have top quality fibre but the addition of a plastic layer makes them “difficult to break down” in the mills. The soft drinks cups are sometimes double-laminated. “Plastic and other contamination can cause significant challenges at paper mills, adding additional costs and waste into paper making,” DS Smith noted.

In 2021, the equivalent of 391 million bin bags of plastic contamination was collected at Kemsley Mill–the largest mill for recycled paper in the UK–most of which ends up in landfill or incinerators.

Better segregation of these materials so they could be recycled at specialist facilities is needed, a spokeswoman told Footprint. Packaging design also needs to improve, she added.

To meet the standards required of the on-pack recycling label (OPRL) fibre-based packaging must contain no more than 15% plastic or other non-fibre materials. This limit will fall to 10% in January.

The Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI) currently advises 10%, with a move to 5% in January 2023. “We’re prepared to go so far but we just don’t think we should have 15% or 25% thrown at us,” said CPI director of packaging affairs Andrew Barnetson in an interview for the Footprint’s 2022 packaging report.

CPI figures show that of the five million tonnes of paper packaging sent to mills, 2% (or 120,000 tonnes) is challenging to recycle.

Paper lined with traditional or plant-based plastic has become a popular alternative to pure plastic packaging, especially for flexible plastic which is hard to recycle (and extremely hard to recycle back into food packaging).

Some 3.2 billion pieces of fibre-composite food packaging were placed in the market in 2019, but there was “no treatment or recycling infrastructure in place” for all this, according to a recent Wrap/Valpak report.