Axion Consulting has initiated a collaborative project with global packaging brands aimed at improving the recyclability of flexible packaging.
The two-year Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging – REFLEX project, aims to achieve a circular economy for flexible packaging such as confectionery wrappers and detergent pouches, and divert them from landfill.
The seven partners involved in the project include: Amcor Packaging UK Ltd, Dow Chemical Company Ltd, Nestle UK Ltd, Sita Holdings UK Ltd, The Interflex Group Europe Ltd, Tomra Sorting Ltd, and Unilever Central Resources Ltd.
Flexible packaging such as plastic bags, sweet wrappers, frozen food bags and pouches makes up 32% of consumer plastic packaging in the UK, however virtually all of these 556,000 tons ends up in landfill. By contrast 58% of plastic bottles are recycled, according to Axion Consulting.
“This project aims to remove the barriers preventing flexible packaging being recycled, thus enabling recyclers such as Axion and SITA to change the supply chain, create a circular economy in flexible packaging and divert it from landfill,” explained Axion Director Roger Morton.
To achieve this requires innovations in package designs, inks, new barrier polymers, novel packaging designs and a new automated sorting technique, he said.
With the backing of Nestlé and Unilever, industry-wide guidelines for recyclable packaging will be agreed and disseminated.
Each step of the process will be trialed during the project, thus demonstrating to the full supply chain that it is viable to create a circular economy in plastic flexible packaging, according to the project leader.
“Flexible plastic packaging represents a huge challenge to current recycling routes, because seemingly ‘simple’ packages, such as a biscuit wrapper, may incorporate several functional layers to deliver heat-sealable, oxygen barrier, metalized, printed and varnished packaging with high tear strength, good puncture resistance and minimum cost,” Mr Roger explained further.
The complexity of these multi-layer films makes them virtually impossible to recycle by current methods because of the mix of polymer types and inks used. Research has started into how flexible packaging can be collected, sorted and then reprocessed into high-quality recycled plastic pellet suitable for use in the manufacture of a wide range of products.
Axion Consulting anticipated that the market will follow a similar model to that for plastic bottle recycling and take ten years to mature to a point at which more than 50% of flexible packaging is diverted from the waste stream.
The project is funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.