Design and Colour – why black plastic is a problem

A highlight of Instagram is uber design critic (and OBE) Alice Rawsthorn’s informative, account. She usually takes on each week with a particular subject, posting a story related to it on each day. During her recent Design and Colour week she put the spotlight on an issue surrounding plastic recycling and the colour black that prompted us to go down the rabbit hole for more info. Many food producers choose to use black packaging coloured with carbon black pigment, because it makes red meat look more appetising. However, the materials are often unrecyclable or, owing to their colour, can fail to be picked up by the optical scanners used at recycling plants to sort through the plastics. The result of this? Over a billion black food trays in Britain are sent to landfill and more and more plastic ends up in our oceans.

A recent report issued by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation stated that “without fundamental redesign, about 30% of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled.” MacArthur teamed up with the Prince of Wales in May this year to launch a multimillion-pound competition to inspire designers to create ways of reducing plastics in the world’s oceans, hopefully through better, reusable products. The famous ocean adventurer told her audience that “only 2% of plastic packaging gets recycled into the same quality material and 32% leaks into the environment. Then there is 30% which cannot be recycled at all and that is what this innovation project is about.”

Rob Opsomer who leads the MacArthur Foundation has previously warned that it’s economic constraints that are still a major barrier to change. “Black packaging coloured with the carbon black pigment, for example, remains prevalent due to branding and cost reasons,” he told The Guardian. The foundation that he runs wants producers of plastic packaging and the brands that use it to all be part of the solution – and their competition will hopefully ignite this change. You can read more about their vision in The New Plastics Economy report. And if you’re keen to try and make your own impact, then the easiest way is to try to avoid buying anything packaged on black plastic altogether. If you’ve been meaning to start shopping at your local butcher, now you’ve got a good reason to give it a go.

Jill Macnair


Jill Macnair has worked as an interiors journalist for 13 years, contributing to titles including Elle Decoration, The Sunday Times and The Guardian. She set up cult interiors blog My Friend’s House in 2009 with Ros Anderson and continues to run the forum daily.

The Chromologist 2019 | Farrow & Ball

The Chromologist