The soft plastics conundrum

Multi coloured soft plastic packagingSoft flexible plastic is everywhere – it wraps our bread, vegetables, pet food and many more everyday items. It is designed to be lightweight and to protect items from damage, and keep them fresh; but most of it is single-use and is not generally recycled by local councils as part of weekly kerbside collections. Supermarkets have begun to offer soft plastic recycling services to try and ensure that this material is collected and recycled where possible. These stores have a distinct advantage in this area as they are able to use their empty delivery trucks to transport soft plastics back to their logistics hubs. This is financially advantageous as it makes use of ‘free’ return transport and allows them to move large volumes of soft plastics in bulk from where they are used internally in stores.

Soft plastics at the University of Reading

The Sustainability team are regularly asked about the collection of soft plastics at the University. For any waste stream, it is essential to weigh up the financial, logistical and environmental costs and benefits. Soft plastics are very lightweight and even when scrunched up they still contain a lot of air, so take up a lot of space. This means they are relatively expensive to transport, treat and recycle. The University would have to implement a new range of internal and external bins to store the plastic, which, alongside the pollution impact of having another separate set of collections from our waste contractor, means that it is costly both financially and environmentally. The University does not generate a large volume of soft plastics at the moment compared to other businesses – so when looking at this issue holistically we do not believe it is the most environmentally beneficial solution to collect this waste stream at the present time. When soft plastics go into the University’s general waste, this does not go to landfill, but instead goes to be incinerated to generate electricity.

We encourage staff and students to take your own soft plastic packaging to the Co-op’s soft plastic recycling bin at the Whiteknights store. Some individual departments have organised their own collections of soft plastics, which they take to Coop for recycling. The Coop’s website has some useful advice to help you understand what they can and cannot collect.

Recycling is only one answer

Recycling of soft plastics is only one part of the puzzle. From a holistic environmental perspective, it is beneficial to protect items from potential damage and spoiling, whilst using the least resources possible (materials, energy, fuel). It is therefore important for manufacturers, suppliers and shops to consider how to package items in a more sustainable way and to reduce the amount of single-use packaging produced. Re-using packaging and containers is more environmentally beneficial than recycling single-use items. There are increasing numbers of refill shops in the local area, where you simply take along an empty refillable storage container or bottle and get it refilled with what you would like to buy.  You can find details of a shop near you by using the Refill app or the nearest refill store to the Whiteknights and London Road campuses is the RISC Global Refills store on London Street.

The University’s Catering team continue to investigate re-usable packaging and how to improve facilities for using reusable cups, cutlery and crockery for food and beverage purchases.  For example the disposable cup tax was increased in September 2022 and this has led to the number of hot drinks being served in reusable cups rising from 20% to 60%.

Find out more

We encourage all staff and students to consult our extensive A to Z on our website where you can find details all the items we can and can’t recycle at the university.

Find out more about how the University of Reading manages waste and resources in our webinar – where Paul Taylor and Jo Merry from the Sustainability team discuss and answer commonly asked questions.

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