Axion Consulting is leading an innovative collaborative project involving high-profile global brands aimed at significantly improving the recyclability of flexible packaging and diverting more of it from landfill.
Circular economy for flexible packaging
The two-year REFLEX project, funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, aims to create a circular economy for flexible packaging – from confectionery wrappers to detergent pouches - by involving the whole supply chain, from polymer production and packaging manufacture to waste management and recycling.
Joining the Manchester-based resource recovery specialist are Amcor Ltd, Dow Chemical Company Ltd, Interflex Group, Nestlé UK Ltd, SITA Holdings UK Ltd, TOMRA Sorting Ltd and Unilever UK Central Resources Ltd.
Flexible packaging such as plastic bags, confectionery wrappers, frozen food bags and pouches makes up nearly a third (32%) of consumer plastic packaging in the UK, however virtually all of this 556,000 tonnes produced annually ends up in landfill. By contrast 58% of plastic bottles are recycled.
The REFLEX project aims to remove barriers
“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,” explains Axion Director Roger Morton.
“To achieve this, innovative recyclable flexible package designs and materials are required, where all the materials used can be reprocessed together. Recycling these materials is still very technically and commercially challenging.”
Innovative inks, new barrier polymers, novel packaging designs and a new automated sorting technique
The project will include innovative inks, new barrier polymers, novel packaging designs and a new automated sorting technique. With the backing of Nestlé and Unilever, two global brands that see consumer value in offering recyclable packaging, industry-wide guidelines for recyclable packaging will be agreed and disseminated.
Each step of the process will be trialled during the project, thus demonstrating to the full supply chain that it is viable to create a circular economy in plastic flexible packaging.
Currently, recycling flexible film presents a number of challenges with low yields due to multi-layer barrier materials, difficulties in sorting it from bulk waste and high ink loadings that affect the final recycled product colour. Confusion among consumers over what exactly can be recycled is also a significant barrier to recovering more of these materials.
Huge challenge to current recycling routes
“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, metalised, printed and varnished packaging with high tear strength, good puncture resistance and minimum cost,” continues Roger.
“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,” he adds.
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. It is 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.