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Boosting kerbside recycling for flexible plastics


As part of Unilever’s ambition to create a waste-free world, amongst other targets, we’ve committed to ensuring that all our packaging is recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

Recycling bags ready for collection at the front of a house

The flexible plastic challenge

There are plenty of technical challenges we’re tackling on our plastic journey. For packaging to be fully recyclable, not only does the material itself need to be recyclable, but the wider waste infrastructure needs to be in place so it can be collected, sorted and recycled into new products.

Creating this viable circular economy is more challenging for some materials, including flexible plastics which we use for our ice cream wrappers, to seal our food trays, for our laundry capsule pouches and bottle sleeves, and to wrap our products when we are moving our products around from our factories to shelves.

Flexible plastic is tricky to recycle as its unique properties mean it can get stuck in or clog up recycling machinery. Recycling flexible plastic is a considerable challenge: it represented 22% of all UK consumer plastic packaging in 2020 but only 8% was recycled.

Alongside five of the UK’s other largest branded manufacturers, Unilever, Mars UK, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, and PepsiCo, the Flexible Plastic Fund (FPF), was launched with the aim to boost flexible plastic recycling in the UK, so it can be re-used again and again. The FlexCollect project was set up in May 2022 to understand how best to collect and recycle flexible plastic packaging and to trial kerbside collections across nine different waste collection authorities over three years.

The UK’s biggest flexible plastic kerbside recycling pilot

This week, the initial results from the UK’s biggest flexible plastic kerbside recycling collection pilot, the Flexible Plastic Fund (FPF) FlexCollect project, have been released in an interim report.

This industry-led project has been initiated and led by the Flexible Plastic Fund – which is managed by Ecosurety, with Unilever as a founding member - and benefits from cross-industry expertise of leading industry and government partners, including DEFRA, UKRI, SUEZ, RECOUP, LARAC AND WRAP, as well as some of the UK’s leading manufacturers including Unilever.

The FlexCollect project is now halfway through and an interim report authored by project delivery managers SUEZ recycling and recovery UK has been published. The report showcases the early findings from the seven local authorities currently running pilots, covering nearly 30,000 households from across the UK.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Collections have been added successfully into existing kerbside recycling services
  • Collections have been really well received - over 89% of households are ‘very satisfied’ with the service across four pilots surveyed
  • 60% of households participate regularly and the average weight presented per collection bag per household across all pilots is 291g
  • The quality of flexible plastic packaging collected is generally very good – 90% is recyclable and there is only 10% contamination
bin man putting a recycling bag into recycle van

The encouraging insights from the report at this half-way stage will help local authorities, packaging producers, the plastic industry, policy makers and the waste and resource management industry prepare for UK-wide collections in just over three years. In March 2027, kerbside collection of flexible plastic packaging for recycling will be mandatory in England.

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