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A fund designed to recycle soft plastics is running dry

The Flexible Plastic Fund was set up in May 2021 to boost recycling rates of food wrappers, plastic carrier bags. But all hasn't gone as per plan

Soft plastics are often difficult to recycle because they are made up of different polymers and contaminated food
Soft plastics are often difficult to recycle because they are made up of different polymers and contaminated food (Photo by Jasmin Sessler, Unsplash)

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A multimillion pound fund backed by companies including Unilever Plc and Pepsico Inc. that aims to boost recycling rates of food wrappers and plastic carrier bags has failed to pay out any money since its launch more than a year ago.

Soft plastics are notoriously difficult to process in recycling plants because they’re often made up of different polymers or contaminated with food.

It’s a growing problem for companies and governments, because a quarter of all plastic waste on the market is soft, or flexible. Only about 17% of UK local authorities collect soft plastics from households even though the government this year set a goal of reaching 100% by 2027. But even waste that’s collected, isn’t always recycled.

To try to tackle the issue, companies including Mondelez International, Mars Inc. and Nestle SA established The Flexible Plastic Fund in May of last year, together committing to contribute £1 million ($1.24 million) a year. The idea is to pay a set rate of £100 per tonne to recyclers of soft plastics in order to drive investment in new processing equipment, making it commercially viable.

But since its launch in May 2021, the fund hasn’t made any payments, according to research by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency. The slow uptake means compliance company EcoSurety, which runs the fund, is now revising the payment mechanism and looking at alternative funding streams.

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“This is slow and delicate work, especially as we insist on full traceability of the material,” said Stephanie Housty, marketing manager for EcoSurety, in response to questions. “If it was easy, it would have been done by now.”

The fund would only pay out to companies when they can prove that post-consumer flexible plastic collected by retailers has actually been recycled, Housty said. It also refuses to support any recycling that is done outside of Europe. The fund would rather pay out to a credible company than risk funding one that isn’t delivering on what it promises, she said. 

Reporting by Bloomberg News this year found that soft plastics collected at the supermarket chain Tesco Plc for recycling instead traveled more than a 1,000 miles from the UK to Poland, only to end up being stored cheaply in landfills or burned. Tesco subsequently launched an inquiry into the relationship between one of its executives and waste broker Eurokey, which had the contract to take the trash.

A spokeswoman for Eurokey said they don’t send any material to landfill and only a very small percentage of the material they process is determined to be non-recyclable and is incinerated, or goes to an approved processor. 

“The material that Eurokey manages is tracked from the point of collection and dispatched by licensed waste carriers to Eurokey owned and operated facilities where it is sorted and dispatched to accredited reprocessing facilities.”

Also read: More funding needed globally to fight air pollution crisis

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