Packaging manufacturer introduces new recyclable black plastic food trays

Materials World magazine
25 Mar 2019

An Irish packaging company’s new black plastic food trays can be identified in recycling sorting systems, diverting black plastic from landfill. Shardell Joseph reports. 

New technological advances in black plastic food trays are predicted to divert thousands of tonnes of black plastic from landfill each year. Developed by Irish company Quinns Packaging, the new trays are tackling the issue of black plastics’ invisibility to detection by changing the pigment.

Popular among food manufacturers, standard black polyethylene terephthalate (PET) trays use a carbon black colour additive. Material recovery facilities use near infrared (NIR) optical sorting equipment to identify and sort plastic waste streams, but the carbon black trays absorb the infrared beams, making them invisible. As the sorting system cannot detect the black plastic, it cannot be automatically sent for recycling.

‘Carbon black pigment hinders this polymer detection by absorbing the light. Nothing is reflected to the detectors so the equipment effectively doesn’t see anything. The trays are essentially invisible,’ said Quinn Packaging New Product Development Manager, Thomas McCaffrey.

‘In the case of the Detecta range, there is no carbon black pigment included. Instead the black colour is achieved by blending primary and secondary colour pigments together to achieve black. By using this solution the NIR light both passes through and reflects off the tray surface resulting in the packaging being fully visible to sorting systems.’

Each year in the UK, 3.5 million tonnes of plastic goes to landfill because black and other dark colours of packaging cannot be detected by recycling sorters. One million tonnes of that is plastic packaging – 5% of all packaging made annually.

Ecosurety, a packaging compliance scheme, suggested plastics as a material stream faces huge pressure to reach the 51% recycling rate – describing the plastics performance as a ‘cause for concern.’

Focused on improving the market with an easily recyclable, competitively priced black PET tray, McCaffrey, said, ‘In the past 12 months we have seen a growing desire within the food sector to move away from black coloured packaging. For Quinn Packaging, this was shortsighted.

‘If we are serious about moving towards a true circular economy, where food trays are recycled back into food trays, then the ultimate packaging colour to achieve this is black. The new range overcomes the issue of identifying and sorting black PET trays for recycling and will hopefully help the industry to move towards a true circular economy.’

Operating the packaging and compliance scheme for Ireland under licence from the Irish government, Repak has endorsed the Quinn product by declaring it as an important step in helping meet new EU targets on plastic waste.

Repak Packaging Technology Executive, Brian Walsh, said the EU Action Plan for a Circular Economy has a recycling target of 75% for packaging waste by 2030. ‘To allow us to achieve this we need a collaborative effort from all stakeholders, identify where problems exist and then work together to bring forward solutions,’ he said.

‘The new Detecta by Quinn is a perfect example of this. Quinn Packaging has worked closely with both the retail and the waste recycling sector to develop a new black PET tray that can be recycled. This is a great illustration of packaging design for recycling.’