U.K. Grapples With Recycling Meat Packaging Waste

Let’s face it: Preparing meat for the market is a messy business.

Plastic and cardboard packaging gets contaminated with meat residue and all the other parts of the animal. Meat plants are constantly faced with the meat packagingchallenge of what to do with the packaging waste created when the larger cuts of meat are broken down into retail cuts. Does it get recycled or thrown away?

The issue is of particular concern for the United Kingdom, which lacks plastic recycling facilities. Much of its meat packaging waste is exported to be used to generate energy.

The industry generates more than 30,000 tons of packaging waste annually. This is in addition to what end consumers generate. Even though the meat packers’ contribution is 0.5% of the total amount of waste generated from the food, drink, and packaging industries, they still believe there is room to reduce how much they throw away.

Recycling contaminated waste is difficult. But to clean it costs more than the benefits, as those processes are more expensive than preparing the waste for recycling.

In an attempt to come up with solutions, the English Beef and Lamb Executive Ltd. (EBLEX) — an organization that aims to enhance the profitability and sustainability of the English beef and lamb industries — wrote a feasibility study.

“The UK does not have an extensive network of facilities for recycling plastic or recovering energy from waste, for example by using incinerators to generate electricity and heat,” says Christine Walsh, supply chain development manager for EBLEX, in a press release about the study. “Where such facilities do exist, the technologies used generally lag behind those being employed on the continent. Consequently, waste from UK meat plants is often exported to be used for energy recovery.”

Unfortunately, no best uses of the contaminated waste could be established. “This feasibility study is the first step in identifying opportunities to enhance the facilities available for utilizing plastic waste within the UK,” the study says. “However, further investigation is needed to determine the most cost-effective way of reducing the amount of meat packaging going to landfill.”

However, the study did name some of the barriers to recycling. The raw materials used in much of the plastics in the meat packing industry is of poor quality for recycling because different polymers are used, they are in different colors, and they are often contaminated.

The public is debating whether the best use for mixed plastics is incineration, given the shortage of fuel, or recycling. There is a cost to sort, wash, and dry the plastic to recycle it. The income the industry could get for the plastic’s high calorific value is attractive. But groups have been pressuring the U.K.’s government not to set up incineration plants because of the emissions that would come from them and potentially affect air quality.

The report can be found on the Research and Development section of EBLEX website. It is called the “Feasibility Study to Reduce the Amount of Primal Packaging of Meat Going to Landfill.”

Source: “Report highlights possibilities for plastics from the meat industry,” EBLEX
Image by Andy Wright.