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Better plastics recycling: what Unilever’s decision to use ‘detectable’ black plastic means for businesses in Westminster

Unilever’s products are used worldwide by 2.5 billion people every day, with household brands including Lipton, Knorr, Dove, Hellmann’s, Surf, and many more. The company has a positive approach to sustainable business growth, and is committed to reducing its environmental footprint.

By changing the packaging on just two of their brands, Unilever expects to make a total of around 2,500 tonnes of black plastic packaging recyclable in the UK alone — an annual amount that’s equal in weight to 200 London buses.

Each successful trial that goes mainstream creates an opportunity for us to make positive, progressive changes to our own waste management in Westminster. By understanding the impact of every small change and working with the right partners, we’re proud to be among the first organisations to be in a position to put these latest developments into practice.

The problem with black plastics

In theory, black plastics are recyclable, but they often don’t end up being recycled due to the colour black not being recognised by the sorting systems used in most materials recovery facilities (sorting plants). As a result, black plastic frequently ends up being rejected from the sorting process and then disposed of to landfill or incineration as general waste.

Unilever have come up with a way to tackle the ‘invisibility’ of black plastic to infrared sorting machines and address the issue at the start of the manufacturing process. This leads to what they believe will be a robust closed-loop process, where black plastic can be collected, recycled, and produced to make something new without having a negative impact on the environment.

Unilever’s ‘detectable black plastic’ success

Unilever is ideally placed to lead this type of innovation and technical solution, and recently announced the use of a ‘detectable’ black pigment in plastic packaging for its TRESemmé and Lynx cosmetic product brands, phasing in new packaging for the two brands this year.

A year ago, Unilever signed the voluntary ‘Plastics Pact’, a government-backed initiative that aims to reduce ‘problematic or unnecessary’ single-use plastic packaging by 2025, as well as ensuring 100% of plastic packaging is recyclable. The ‘invisibility’ of black plastic to sorting machinery has been one of the most problematic issues for recycling, so any change on this is both welcome and overdue.

Veolia is ready for black plastics recycling

Unilever ran trials in partnership with plastics recycling body Recoup and waste management companies including Veolia, Westminster County Council’s own waste partner.

Veolia’s Southwark recycling facility (the materials recovery facility where the mixed recycling we collect is sent) took part in the successful trial. Having invested in the sorting technology, they are already able to deal with this significant shift. The plant has successfully sorted detectable black plastic during the trial, and is happy to confirm its readiness to continue at scale.

This trial is a powerful example of sectors working together to make successful, scalable changes — from the manufacturer through to the recycler. The knowledge and expertise gained will be made accessible to other manufacturers and recyclers, providing the impetus for further change.

As well as disposing of our mixed recycling locally at Veolia’s Southwark MRF, the other waste streams that we collect are also all disposed of as locally as possible.

View our interactive recycling facilities map

How these changes impact Westminster businesses

We welcome all opportunities to better recycle black plastics in London, and we’re well-positioned to make sure your organisation benefits from these successes at a local level.

Taking advantage of the latest technological advances such as the Unilever trial as soon as we can, we are keen to be at the forefront of developments to make it easy for our businesses to recycle. We already meet two of the main waste objectives in the London Mayor’s environment strategy:

  • Reducing waste transport and bulk-haulage associated emissions
  • Managing London’s waste locally within London

With the introduction of the latest black plastic detection technology at Veolia’s Southwark MRF, we will be able to recycle to an even higher standard.

We are passionate about recycling to the highest standard possible, and we want to share that passion with you. Together we can support our local community and aim to improve the country’s carbon footprint with the high standard of facilities and standards of recycling we choose to utilise.

Find out just how much we can already recycle, and what happens to the waste we collect and manage by downloading our infographic today.

The infographic helps to demonstrate that all of the waste that we collect goes on to have a further use once it reaches the drop-off facility.

We’d encourage you to print out a copy of this Infographic and display it in your workplace. It should assure your colleagues that the rubbish and recycling they dispose of, still has a positive use.

You can download either an A4 or an A3 version from our Infographic web page, here.

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