All Categories


Home > 

What does the future hold for plastic packaging? (II)

May 30,2023

Reduce contamination

Last year, Biffa highlighted that nearly a fifth of all recycling is lost due to contamination. Food contamination on or inside packaging is one of the major issues hindering our recycling efforts, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Increased awareness around the recycling process and the impact of contamination will help change behaviour for consumers and businesses.

There are plans for legislation to make the current voluntary, on-package labelling system mandatory. This needs to be realised for both consumer and business packaging, with the clearest messaging possible, to drive awareness of what the recycling symbols mean and the condition a container needs to be in to be recycled. This will reduce the amount of unrecyclable material in the UK collection and processing systems, improve the quality of our recycled materials and lower the carbon emissions output.

Our industry, regulatory bodies and government need a greater understanding of the packaging materials in circulation. Extended Producer Responsibility begins this year, obligating more businesses to report in greater detail on the packaging they produce and in what quantity. This will provide valuable insight to support customer choice and promote better packaging design for recycling.

Replace single-use plastic

The government recently announced its intention to ban certain single-use plastics, including plates and cutlery. While this is a welcome step in the right direction, the plastics themselves are not the problem; it’s that they are single-use. As single-use plastics are phased out, they need to be replaced by more multi-use or reusable options.


From bamboo cutlery to plant-based plastic alternatives, any material in a single-use and on-the-go context presents a unique challenge. For example, it doesn’t matter if something is compostable if it ends up in general waste or if non-recyclable materials are put in the recycling bin. It all results in resources being lost and emissions being created.

Even if a material is identified as compostable, that can mean it is only industrially compostable, so it is not suitable to be processed with end-of-life food in anaerobic digestion or biodegraded in a domestic compost setting or green waste collections. This means it requires specialist collection and processing.

The ban on single-use plastics will help increase the use of readily recyclable packaging solutions. However, it’s just one piece of the puzzle that will help the UK circular economy.

Simplify packaging

Brands are operating in highly competitive markets, working with tight margins. Packaging needs to be easy to fill, protect the contents, and catch the eye of consumers in a split second in saturated environments. Often this leads to choices in colour and materials that render the container unrecyclable. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; it is possible to create sustainable plastic packaging that speaks to the consumer.

Commonality and consistency are key to creating simple, sustainable packaging. If materials or different types of plastic are mixed, it becomes harder to separate the materials and recycle them. Packaging such as laminated material, plastic wrapping and big sleeves need to be separated or recycled at specialist facilities; this is often impractical and unsustainable at scale.

This is also true of packaging that contains more than one colour of plastic. No food-grade coloured plastic can be recycled back into natural-coloured food-grade packaging, as the pigment remains in the polymer. When mixed pigments are recycled together, the material becomes grey. Adopting clear plastic wherever possible will help move towards more sustainable packaging. Improvements can also be made by shrink-wrapping labels rather than gluing and tethering bottle tops to bottles (ideally the same colour).

Will plastic packaging lose its edge if it is clear, homogenous, and consistent?

Most likely not. The eye-catching design can still be used, provided the components are easily removed and recyclable. Increasing public awareness will support positive changes in consumer behaviour. People want to do the right thing, and those brands which explore sustainable options first will catch the eco-conscious eye and achieve cut-through – the time to start is right now.

At Biffa, we support some of the UK’s leading brands through this process. Our Blueprint for Waste Net Zero outlines the role of  recyclable plastic packaging  within the future carbon hierarchy and what further changes are needed to deliver a truly circular economy.