Flexible packaging such as plastic bags, confectionery wrappers, frozen food bags and pouches makes up 27% of consumer plastic packaging in the UK, and much of this ends up in landfills or energy recovery.
According to resource recovery specialist Axion Consulting, which led the consortium of various value chain participants, the ability to recycle this type of packaging at end of life will be 'moving forward' following successful research and trials.
Axion worked with its partners in the REFLEX project; Amcor, Dow Chemical Company, Interflex Group, Nestlé UK, Suez, Tomra Sorting and Unilever. The project is co-funded by the UK's innovation agency, Innovate UK. More details can be found on the project at www.reflexproject.co.uk.
The consortium's research took into account the commercial value of materials recovered by the recycling process and demonstrated that attractive yields of recycled materials could be achieved. The project has addressed many technical challenges in establishing an infrastructure to collect, sort and recycle polyolefinic flexible packaging in the UK. For example, along with improvement of flexible packaging designs, the project looked at digital watermarking on packaging that is suitable for mechanical recycling and the use and enhancement of near infrared sorting technologies.
"We think that these changes and further technology optimisation can improve the economics of recycling flexible packaging and make the concept more attractive to investors and recyclers," comments Suez's Technical Development Director Stuart Hayward-Higham.
Practical trials have shown that recovered polymers can deliver the performance requirements and technical properties needed for items such as boxes and crates or drainage pipe products. Stuart believes this will boost confidence in the market and encourage more investment.
"Flexible packaging excels in terms of material efficiency," says Gerald Rebitzer, Director Sustainability for Amcor. "This creates a cascade of environmental benefits throughout the entire value chain, and avoids waste at source. What is still in its infancy is an end-to-end solution for this packaging type. This research could help close that gap."
Guidelines aimed at providing information to packaging designers and technologists, brand owners, retailers and converters to design flexible packaging that is suitable for mechanical recycling have been developed. As more work is needed on investigating and evaluating the compatibility of all the various materials, the guidelines will not be released until further testing work has been completed and validated at European level.
Roger Morton, Director of Axion Consulting comments: "The REFLEX project demonstrated how state-of-the-art technology in sorting and preparation for recycling can help increase the rate of flexible packaging recycling. It also showed how novel packaging designs and potential new marking techniques may further increase recyclability and efficiency of the whole process."
As the two-year project comes to a close, Roger explains that the next steps will be a 'wider collaboration with more brand owners and converters and with more input from waste management companies and recyclers across Europe, to finalise and validate the design guidelines for recycling'.
He says: "It is pivotal that the value chain works together to address the challenge of flexible packaging recycling. Technical advances made in the REFLEX project and the guidelines should help the plastic packaging value chain in future to manage better the end of life packaging and progress towards a more circular model.
"A significant amount of used flexible packaging enters the waste stream each year and is disposed of in landfill sites; a sad ending for such a resource-efficient type of packaging. It is an important resource waiting to be mined for high quality materials with the potential to be recycled into all kinds of long-life applications from automotive products to rotational/ injection-moulded items."
Dana Mosora, Director for Sustainability and Advocacy for Dow's Packaging and Specialty Plastics, EMEA concludes: "We're shining a light on each part of the value chain to come up with a better integrated system to collect, sort and recycle flexible plastic packaging and we have identified a clear need for investment to develop the infrastructure which will enable recycling of flexible packaging with state-of-the-art technology today. We are also looking forward to work on developing the 'Design for Recycling' guidelines with a broader European consortium, to be formed by the proposed merging with the FIACE consortium and involving other relevant stakeholders."
The consortium also welcomes the creation of a new European stakeholder platform that will focus on increasing recycling levels of plastic packaging, which has support from Plastics Europe, Plastics Recyclers Europe and European Packaging Converters.