How infrared tech can tackle alarming rates of ‘rogue’ plastic in recycling

New figures from a leading packaging company, DS Smith have revealed the alarming amount of plastic waste that ends up in UK paper and cardboard recycling streams.

In the last year alone, our Kemsley Paper Mill – the largest recycled paper mill in the UK – measured enough plastic contamination in paper and cardboard materials bound for recycling to fill up to 4.8 million black bin bags.

The stark figure, based on tests using new Near Infrared Technology, reveals just how widespread the issue of rogue plastic is, and further highlights the importance of quality controls across the recycling industry.

We introduced state of the art quality measurement tools, including Near Infrared technology to assess the quality of material arriving from household and commercial collections. The process allows us to identify the worst offenders and proactively work with them to improve segregation and collection methods.

To mitigate against the issue and ensure as much paper is recovered as possible, DS Smith’s own collection infrastructure implemented an eight-step process to ensure plastic riddled bales are separated and sorted for further processing before they arrive at the mill.


Jochen Behr

Introducing state-of-the-art monitoring equipment at our Mill has allowed us to be forensic about the quality of material that we process in the UK. It is important that the right materials end up at the right recycling facility. We have argued for many years on the importance of quality material for recycling, and the importance of separate collections to ensure that paper and cardboard can be easily recycled, and therefore underpinning their qualities as important contributors to the circular economy.

— Jochen Behr, Head of Recycling at DS Smith

The importance of collection streams and tackling the issues of plastic contamination at the source have been revealed by the new data provided. Paper and card are more likely to be contaminated by plastics when it comes from mixed recycling collections – where materials such as glass, cans, paper and plastics are collected together – as opposed to segregated collections. In some cases, the amount of contamination can double. As such we are calling for more local authorities to adopt collections where these materials are separated.

Working with suppliers of paper for recycling, from retailers and supermarkets to collection agencies and councils, we engage in sharing data and working in partnerships to resolve quality issues. Feeding back to the initial source point of materials and advising on collections and better handling of materials will ultimately reduce the risk of contamination by plastics and other materials.

2547 RHM_DSS 153.jpgOur recent ‘Tipping Point’ report predicted that the UK would miss its 2035 65% recycling target by more than a decade. The report calls for policymakers to introduce separate collections of card and paper as mandatory to improve the quality of material collected for recycling. This new data serves to highlight the scale of the problem of plastics contaminating paper recycling streams.

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