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Flexible packaging manufacturers and brands join together for UK recycling project

A new collaborative project involving global brands aims to significantly improve the recyclability of flexible packaging and diverting more of it from landfill. The two-year REFLEX project, funded by the UK's innovation agency, Innovate UK, aims to create a circular economy for flexible packaging by involving the whole supply chain, from polymer production and packaging manufacturers to waste management and recycling.

Amcor, Dow Chemical Co., Interflex Group, Nestlé UK, SITA Holdings UK, TOMRA Sorting, Unilever UK Central Resources and Axion Consulting are all working on the project. 

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 tons produced annually ends up in landfill. By contrast 58% of plastic bottles are recycled.

"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," said 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."

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, industry-wide guidelines for recyclable packaging will be agreed and disseminated.

Each step of the process will be trialed during the project, which is designed to demonstrate to the full supply chain that it is viable to create a circular economy in plastic flexible packaging, according to a news release. 

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 color. Confusion among consumers over what exactly can be recycled is also a significant barrier to recovering more of these materials.

"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," Roger said.

"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 may take 10 years to get to a point at which more than 50% of flexible packaging is diverted from the waste stream.

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