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We’ve cracked the tricky problem of recycling black plastic bottles


Until now, black plastic bottles have been impossible to mechanically detect and sort for recycling. But we’ve developed a way of doing it. And we’re making the technology and approach available to everybody.

Plastic scrub beads

We have pioneered the development of a new detectable black pigment for our High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) bottles – which we use for our TRESemmé and Lynx (Axe) brands – so they can now be ‘seen’ by recycling plant scanners and sorted for recycling.

These automatic optical sorting machines are unable to distinguish black plastic because they use near infra-red light which is absorbed by the ‘carbon black’ pigment traditionally used to colour the bottles. This effectively makes them invisible to the sorter and leads to them being rejected and sent for waste.

The new technology means that an additional 2,500 tonnes of plastic bottles could now potentially be sorted and sent for recycling each year in the UK alone. That’s equivalent to the weight of over 1,200 family-sized cars or 200 London buses.

It also means we can further ‘close the loop’ and include the recycled black plastic back in new packaging.

In 2019, we will phase in the new detectable bottles in the UK. TRESemmé detectable black bottles are already starting to go into stores and Lynx will follow suit later in the year. Both brands will introduce minimum 30% recycled plastic this year.

Sebastian Munden, General Manager of Unilever UK & Ireland, says: “Unilever has committed globally to all our plastic packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and to using more recycled plastic content in our packaging, and in the UK we want to significantly accelerate this. This latest innovation moves us further towards our goal and makes a significant contribution towards the UK Plastics Pact targets. We’d like to thank our industry partners for working with us to make this possible.”

The UK Plastics Pact

Unilever is a founding member of the UK Plastics Pact which has a vision for an economy where plastics never become waste. It brings together the entire plastics packaging value chain behind this vision – governments, businesses, local authorities, NGOs and consumers – and commits to a set of world-leading targets. These include eliminating problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery models.

A row of black plastic Tresemme bottles

This latest innovation moves us further towards our goal and makes a significant contribution towards the UK Plastics Pact targets.

Sebastian Munden

Opening up our technology and expertise

We have carried out extensive trials – in collaboration with RECOUP (a leading authority in plastic recycling) and waste management partners Veolia, Viridor, Suez and TOMRA – which have proved that this new pigment can be technically detected within their material recycling facilities in the UK.

The knowledge and expertise from developing this solution will be made accessible to others in the industry, as well as to other markets globally. We will also be pleased to share our work and the insights generated with other manufacturers to enable wide use of this technology and approach.

Closing the loop: Our five-point plastic plan

The switch to detectable black plastic is one in a series of moves as part of Unilever UK&I’s new #GetPlasticWise campaign, which is a holistic approach to rethinking plastic. The five-point plan aims to tackle plastic waste in the UK which in turn will help Unilever reach its global commitment.

Through focusing our efforts in five key areas, we’re working towards a closed loop where plastic stays within our plastic economy and doesn’t end up in the environment:

  1. Increase the amount of recycled content we use and the recyclability of our packaging
  2. Reduce the amount of plastic in our products and business, and ensure that the plastic we do need can be reused, recycled or composted
  3. Seek alternatives to plastic
  4. Support positive behaviour change with our consumers and employees
  5. Work collaboratively with a range of partners to affect change
A graphic showing the process for recycling black plastics

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