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Soft Plastic Take-back Schemes: Are They a Real solution?

‘Soft plastics’ are a category of plastic waste that includes things like clear film, crisp packets, fruit bags, food pouches and biscuit wrappers. Soft plastics contribute towards nearly 300,000 tonnes of plastic waste every year; soft plastics are some of the most common in our homes. However, a solution for what to do with them once they have been used has been elusive.

A drag on recycling rates

Most soft plastics can be recycled, but it’s a specialised process. The plastics are cleaned, sorted by grade, size, and colour (often by hand), and then melted down into flakes or pellets. These can be used to create new plastic bags, food packaging or even clothing. 

Since only around 15% of UK local authorities collect soft plastic items from the curbside, it is unsurprising that soft plastics are a major drag on recycling rates in the UK. In fact household recycling rates for soft plastics are thought to be as low as 5%.

What are the supermarkets doing?

With a need for action evident, soft plastic collection points sprung up in UK supermarkets from 2021. These offered customers a chance to drop off their soft plastic in-store, with the promise that the store would recycle it. For example, Tesco promised that they would recover ‘80% of the soft plastic returned’, and that it would be ‘kept out of landfill’. Morrisons promised that soft plastics would ‘not be sent overseas for reprocessing’, and be recycled in the UK.

Since 2021, there have been some successes in finding new uses for deposited soft plastics. Tesco reports recycling it into bin liners and packaging for its own-brand cheese. Co-op has turned collected plastic, rather vaguely, into ‘material for the construction industry’. What proportion of the waste collected in stores actually gets recycled in these ways is unreported.

However, this success is not universal. Sainsbury’s admitted that, currently, they do not recycle any of the deposited soft plastic in the UK. Trackers placed by Bloomberg into Tesco soft plastic bins made their way across Europe to Poland and Turkey, where, rather than being recycled, evidence pointed to these plastics being incinerated or discarded. As Bloomberg concluded, the soft plastic recycling system ‘looks less like a virtuous circle and more like passing the buck’. 


So why are soft plastics exported? Quite simply, the UK does not have the necessary infrastructure to recycle these kinds of plastics. Moreover, the recycling process is expensive, and the market for recycled soft plastics is small due to the low quality and limited utility of the recycled product. This is why local authorities do not collect these at the curbside, and why recycling rates of soft plastics are so low in the UK.

False sense of security

Take-back schemes have proved that the UK population is keen to recycle more of their soft plastics, however, critics have argued that these schemes only offer consumers a ‘false sense of security’. The reality is that these schemes have not improved the laborious processes of or increased the limited capacity for soft plastic recycling. Moreover, with the consumers’ consciences settled, there is less pressure on supermarkets to make efforts to reduce their plastic footprint.

Reuse: the only answer

If consumers have the choice between throwing soft plastics in general waste or taking them to an in-store collection point, doing something is still better than nothing. However, it is dangerous that we are being led to believe that take-back schemes – that are really nothing more than stop-gaps could be long-term solutions to the growing problem of the over-use of soft plastics.

These schemes obscure the truth that, in the short to medium term at least, the only real sustainable solution to soft plastic waste is to reduce use – something that supermarkets are proving much slower to respond to.

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apples clear plastic bag - Image by Sophia Marston on Unsplash (ST ref: 1171)

white plastic bag - Image by Christopher Vega on Unsplash (ST ref: 1170)


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