REFLEX – the future for flexible packaging recycling

A multi-partner collaborative project is working to greatly improve the recyclability of flexible packaging that makes up nearly a third REFLEX - waste film at a MRF
(32%) of waste consumer plastic packaging in the UK. Liz Morrish, Principal Consultant at resource recovery specialist Axion Consulting, reports on their significant progress to date.

Every year, virtually all of the UK’s 414,000 tonnes of waste flexible packaging, such as carrier bags, confectionery wrappers, frozen food bags, peelable lids and pouches, ends up in landfill or energy recovery.

It’s a complex and growing waste stream that up to now has been very difficult to recycle, yet recovering and recycling these materials offers tremendous opportunities to recover valuable resources and reduce the amount of this type of waste being landfilled. By contrast 58% of plastic bottles are recycled – clearly showing the public’s enthusiasm for recycling.

Launched in October 2014, the REFLEX project is an innovative collaborative project uniting the whole supply chain – comprising high-profile global brands, packaging convertors, recyclers and technology suppliers – with the vision of achieving a circular economy for flexible packaging and diverting more than 50% of these materials from landfill.

Axion Consulting is working with a number of partners on the REFLEX project, which is co-funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK. These are global brands Nestlé UK Ltd and Unilever UK Central Resources Ltd as well as major stakeholders across the value chain, including the Dow Chemical Company, the converters Amcor Ltd and Interflex Group; and waste management and recycling specialists SUEZ and TOMRA Sorting Ltd.

Research so far has focused on exploring and evaluating alternatives to previously difficult to recycle multi-layer films, which are potentially more suitable for recycling and yet still deliver the performance requirements and technical properties needed for products ranging from confectionery to detergent.

Early breakthroughs include taking multi-layer packaging structures that currently use incompatible polymers and re-designing those applications using polymers and structures which can potentially be recycled together.

Optimisation of NIR (Near Infra-red) sorting technologies to detect and separate mixed polyolefin (PP and PE) packaging, such as sweet wrappers, crisp packets and bread bags will be another targeted success. This will broaden what can be sorted and separated for recycling from mixed post-consumer flexible packaging, thereby improving the separation efficiencies and yield of recoverable material achievable.

Capturing this mixed polyolefin packaging would divert more of it from landfill, while opening up exciting new options for the types of recycled polymers that could subsequently be made from it.

We believe existing NIR technology is capable of more sophisticated sorting, such as identifying and rejecting other problem flexible packaging structures containing incompatible materials which could degrade the recycled polymer. Future research will also concentrate on how to make recyclable packaging more readily identifiable by automated sorting equipment.

Positive results achieved in the first ten months have been very encouraging and attracted high levels of interest from Europe and internationally, including enquiries from brand owners, non-governmental organisations and packaging suppliers.

Recycling flexible packaging is still very technically and commercially challenging, so the project will continue over the next year to explore a range of options and processes, which will be trialled at every step, to determine and demonstrate the most commercially-viable solution.
The project team will research innovative ways of marking recyclable packaging to enable automated sorting of packaging, new barrier polymers, novel packaging designs that can be recycled more easily and smarter reprocessing technology.

Looking ahead, further studies will follow into how flexible packaging can be 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.

The REFLEX project is an award winning and inspiring example that could become a circular economy blueprint as it contains all the elements of the new network needed to close the loop on this form of packaging. The project has recently been recognised in Packaging Europe’s Sustainability Awards 2015 as a runner-up in the ‘Brand’ category, being cited as an ‘industry-leading exemplary model of collaboration’.

The Packaging Europe Awards publication, where the REFLEX project is mentioned on pages 36-37 can be accessed here: http://www.packagingeurope.com/Magazine/index.html#36

Far-reaching beneficial impacts are anticipated, with industry-wide design for recycling guidelines to be drawn up as part of the output of the project. There is also the potential to develop a new market for recycled plastics alongside new plant and processes for recovering post-consumer flexible plastics.

Other environmental and economic benefits include a reduction in this type of waste to landfill and a reduction in the use of imported virgin plastics through the use of valuable raw material resources that would otherwise be lost. It will also create new economic activity for the UK.

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