Technological watch

Opinion: Back to black

Tony Gaukroger, Director, Colour Tone Masterbatch explains why brand owners are making the switch to recyclable black plastics

Black plastics have been the focus of much media attention recently, resulting in an increasing number of brand owners, retailers and packaging manufacturers switching to near-infrared (NIR) detectable black plastics to enable ‘end of life’ recycling. But making these problem plastics recyclable is just the start, it’s now the turn of the recyclers to step-up too if we are to ‘close the loop’.

As a specialist additive and masterbatch manufacturer, we have seen an upsurge in sales since the launch in May this year of our ‘next-generation’ detectable NIR black colourant packages which avoid the use of traditional carbon black pigments. 

Over twenty retailers, packaging manufacturers and brand owners have already adopted NIR colourants including most recently the gourmet dairy brand The Collective. These companies have switched to this technology to ensure their black plastic packaging pots, tubs and ready meal trays are recyclable. 

While many more still are evaluating their materials and are expected to implement the same switch in the coming weeks. This marks a major step forward for the campaign to reduce black packaging waste and goes against those that still persist with the incorrect claim that black plastics cannot be easily recycled and should be avoided. 

This is welcome news for the packaging industry as it means the concept of designing for ‘end-of-life’ has been accepted. This shift is further proof too that product designers are increasingly prepared to specify NIR colourants to help satisfy sustainability goals.

We also expect those retailers who have voiced concerns regarding the use of black plastics will lead the change to recyclable products while re-evaluating their options. 

Capitalising on black plastics 

If we want to capitalise on this technology we need to ensure there are sufficient NIR sorting methods available in the UK’s materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and plastics recovery facilities (PRFs) to recycle these plastics. As to date, progress on this issue has been slow as every facet of the industry has its own agenda. This needs to change if we are to effectively ‘close the loop’ on black plastics, otherwise the efforts of the rest of the supply chain are going to waste. 

Black plastic doesn’t mean ‘bad plastic’

The general public must also be made aware of this new development so that black plastic is not seen as something we must avoid. Thanks to this NIR colourant technology our un-sortable black plastic problem is now a thing of the past. Its use isn’t restricted to ‘single-use’ items either, since all plastics will reach ‘end of life’. Whether it’s a ready meal tray, plant pot, hair brush or an automotive component, they can be all made recyclable preventing further landfill or incineration. 

Something to try at home

For those consumers concerned about whether their packaging is recyclable or not a simple “TV controller test” can be used.

The suspect black container is placed over a standard TV remote [which uses infrared (IR) to send messages to the TV] and then operated. If the TV controller fails to operate then the container absorbs IR radiation so you know it is not NIR sortable. 

Publication date: 11/10/2018 - Packaging

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2020-07-14