Multi-Material Flexible Packaging Recovery Collaborative

This Collaborative’s studies sustainable end-of-life solutions for multi-laminate flexible packaging.

This Collaborative’s mission is to provide resources for companies that want to learn more about multi-material flexible packaging recovery and define key actions can be taken to improve the end-of-life options of multi-material flexible packaging.

SPC team lead:
Tristanne Davis, Senior Manager

Co-chairs:
Ashley Leidolf, Dow Chemical
Sridevi Narayan-Sarathy, PepsiCo

Are you a current SPC member who wants to join the Collaborative? Email tristanne.davis@greenblue.org

Not an SPC member yet? Become a member by applying today.

 

Explore our learnings below

  1. Overview of Multi-Material Flexible Packaging (MMFP)
  2. Mapping Challenges for MMFP Across the Recovery System
  3. Exploring Initiatives to increase MMFP recovery
  4. Our Projects and Findings

Overview of Multi-Material Flexible Packaging (MMFP)

All flexible packaging has an important role to play in packaging sustainability. Flexible packaging in general allows for less use of materials than rigid packaging and enables the sustainable use of materials from an efficiency perspective, which has important implications for carbon emissions from packaging. Flexible packaging also plays a central role in preventing food waste, as it represents a high percentage of food packaging (50% of food packaging is flexible according to CEFLEX). However, the system of today does not support recovery for flexible packaging at end-of-life, with MMFP in particular lacking recovery options. This negatively impacts the sustainability story of MMFP. 

This Collaborative’s main goal is to increase multi-material flexible packaging recovery, e.g. to keep it out of the environment and have it be part of the circular economy. To that end, this group has been working to evaluate all recovery options for multi-material flexible packaging (MMFP). 

Flexible plastic packaging continues to grow as a material of demand. Between 2010 and 2014 global demand for flexible packaging grew 56 percent. In the U.S., flexible packaging is the fastest growing and second largest segment within the packaging industry.  For this reason it is critical to explore new solutions to better recover this packaging category.

While we refer to flexible packaging as whole, the types of resins, polymers and formats used to create flexible packaging varies widely. This complexity, created by using one or more types of polymers to create flexible packaging, challenges the efficient collection, separation, recycling and resale of this material. While new innovations and systems have been created to address single polymer materials, limited options for the end-of-life management of multi-materials flexible film packaging continues to challenge these types of packages.

Mono- vs Multi-Material Flexible Packaging

Mono-material flexible packaging uses one polymer only — most often polyethylene. Commonly found in plastic bags, produce bags and self-sealed food storage bags, these can currently be collected and recycled through the U.S. at store-drop-off center, or in limited municipal curbside collection programs.

Multi-material flexible packaging is composed of two or more materials joined together with adhesive or wax. By layering different materials together manufacturers can create a package with unique barrier and mechanical properties. Additionally, multi-material films are typically thinner and lighter than single (mono) material equivalents. This helps reduce demand for resources required to produce and transport packaging–including reduced greenhouse gases. Because of these advantages, in addition to cost savings, when compared to rigid plastics multi-material flexible packaging, specifically food pouches, is anticipated to be one of the fastest growing packaging formats over the next few years. However, their nature as lightweight and multi-material structures is exactly what complicates their ability for recovery, and in particular, their suitability for mechanical recycling.

Current compositions of multi-material flexible packaging vary from three layers up to nine. Because there is no standard composition, and different resins are utilized across the various layers, there is no existing program anywhere across the globe to provide for the public recovery of these materials. With an estimated 40 billion packages produced from multi-material films annually in the U.S., finding solutions to collect, sort and recover these materials is becoming of increasing interest to packaging and waste communities, as well as, consumers across the globe.

By collecting and highlighting global efforts to advance recovery options for multi-material flexible packaging, it is our aim to advance the collective understanding, and shared best practices, towards the goal of creating a sustainable solution for the management of multi-material flexible packaging at their end of life.

Mapping Challenges for Multi-Material Recycling Across the Recovery System

Design

  • Lack of standard design for multi-material films, which have a wide variety of substrates and combinations of layers, creating a challenge for consistent collection, sortation, reprocessing and end markets.

Collection

  • MMFP is not accepted in standard store drop-off collection for PE flexible packaging and films
  • Much MMFP is used for food, and so risk of food contamination makes acceptance into collection systems challenging
  • There are currently some specific collection systems such as Terracylce for MMFP but they are ad hoc and not at scale 
  • Curbside collection of flexible packaging in general is limited to a few small communities and pilots in North America for MMFP.

Sortation

  • Many different designs make it impossible to identify resin composition
  • Material ends up flowing to the  paper stream in single-stream MRFs because of its two dimensional format and light weight, contaminating that stream

Processing

  • Films can be contaminated by food and drink, which interferes with processing
  • Diverse designs on the market means there is much uncertainty in the contents and properties of a mixed flexible bale, which can make optimizing processing equipment very challenging and produce low-quality outputs.

End Markets

  • Some limited markets are currently available through mechanical recycling into construction products or lumber, but these often depend on special collection systems and are limited to certain formats (i.e. not mixed waste), or can only tolerate a small percentage of MMFP, and so they are not economically viable at scale for all MMFP
  • Feedstock recycling technologies offer some promise for broadening end markets. However many of these technologies are not yet at scale and also require consistent volumes and quantities, which are difficult to achieve from post-consumer collection 
  • The use of MMFP in downcycling applications, such as for use in energy generation, is the most common end-use besides landfill. 

Exploring Initiatives to Increase MMFP Recovery

Quite often, when any new material is introduced into the marketplace, recovery options  are  a step behind. The cycle of innovation requires that as needs arise and markets grow, investment into recovery solutions will advance. This dynamic relationship between demand, innovation and economics is what created our existing recycling system in the first place.  When we examine the history of material recycling, a common pattern emerges, regardless of the material type. A new material is identified and developed for consumer use, collaboration occurs to identify solutions for recycling, investments are made to scale up technological solutions and end markets are identified or created. Once cost-effective processing solutions and viable end markets can be established, materials will gain acceptance into public collection systems.

While there is increasing support for innovation in material recovery systems, establishing the economics of end markets, collection and demand still remain beyond the direct control of those seeking recovery solutions for MMFP. Market economics always has, and will, continue to play a role in driving sustainable recovery systems. 

In order to make MMFP widely recoverable, certain market challenges need to be resolved: 

– Identify technologies and best practices to process these materials.

– Identify cost-effective collection systems and invest in consumer education for participation in collection to ensure adequate recovery rates. 

– Gain regulatory approvals and legislative support (as needed).

– Develop end markets for mixed flexible plastic materials– This end market development can take time and may be influenced by global economics, regulatory, and manufacturer support.

Initiatives to find effective recovery solutions for MMFP have attempted to tackle some, or all, of these challenges. Some projects and pilots have identified solutions to specific challenges. Please see a list of relevant initiatives below.

The Energy Bag
Project 1 of 7

The Energy Bag

The Hefty Energy Bag program, developed by the Dow Chemical Company, uses existing municipal waste management infrastructure to collect, sort, and direct traditionally non-recyclable plastics toward energy conversion.
Learn more
Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF)
Project 2 of 7

Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF)

Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) is a multi-year research project designed to identify how currently unrecyclable flexible packaging could be separated at a material recycling facility (MRF) in a single stream recycling system. Additionally, the project seeks to identify the most cost-effective way to separate and create film bales for sale in order to help drive end market growth.
Learn more
Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) 
Project 3 of 7

Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) 

Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) explores the opportunities for multi-material flexible packaging across its lifecycle; particularly as it relates to being able to create a circular economy for material re-use. Data from REFLEX, the Flexible Aluminum Containing Laminate Collection Trials and FIACE all feeds into this project in order to drive a solution applicable across Europe.
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Red Cycle
Project 4 of 7

Red Cycle

RED Group is a Melbourne, Australia based consulting and recycling organisation who has developed and implemented the REDcycle Program; a recovery initiative for post-consumer soft plastic. They work with retailers Coles, Woolworths and some of Australia’s most-loved brands to help consumers keep your plastic bags and soft plastic packaging out of landfill. The program accepts all flexible packaging through return to retail programs, including multi material flexible packaging.
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RECYCLEBC
Project 5 of 7

RECYCLEBC

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Industry Working Groups
Project 6 of 7

Industry Working Groups

There are many current industry initiatives exploring viable solutions to increase the recovery options of multi-material packaging, including The American Chemistry Council: Plastics to Fuel & Petrochemistry Alliance (PTF), The Flexible Packaging Association’s Flexible Packaging Resource Recovery Task Group, and PACNEXT’s Multi-Material Film & Bags Committee.
Learn more
Closed Loop Foundation
Project 7 of 7

Closed Loop Foundation

The Closed Loop Foundation funds research and development of technologies and business models focused on building the circular economy.
Learn more

Our Projects and Findings

Our Projects

Recovery Technologies Map

This map shows the wide range of established and emerging facilities in North America capable of recovering pre-consumer multi-material flexible packaging waste.

The facilities listed on this map as emerging technologies have not yet been proven as viable candidates for multi-material film recovery in North America but rather may be in very early testing or pilot stage. Their inclusion on this map is not an endorsement by the SPC. Rather they are listed to help users of this map monitor progress and emerging options as innovation in this space advances. This map will be updated as new pilots and projects evolve.

Open map in new window.

This map is focused on pre-consumer multi-material flexible packaging waste because: 

1) Pre-consumer multi-material flexible packaging is more easily processed than post-consumer. There are limited reprocessing technologies that can recover multi-material flexible packaging without having an understanding of the various materials within the overall blend. Pre-consumer material can be easily characterized since it has a known material makeup and is generally free of disruptive contaminants. In contrast postconsumer material is variable and unpredictable because there are so many different formats available in the marketplace. Currently, there are no identifiers within these packages to help material processors identify their chemical composition and thus assist with sorting and reprocessing. Additionally, post-consumer packaging is more likely to be contaminated with residual product;

 2) Pre-consumer multi-material flexible packaging is widely collected for recovery, while postconsumer is not. 

3) While there are no significant examples of processing capabilities in place today for post-consumer mixed multi material flexible packaging, the technologies included in this map represent potential technological interventions that could be extended to post consumer streams. 

Know of another facility that we should add? Email us at spcinfo@greenblue.org.


The FlexPack RecoveryChallenge

One of our findings from the Recovery Technologies Map project was that there are a lack of innovative recovery technologies in place today in North America for MMFP. It was for this reason we decided to launch an entrepreneur’s challenge to identify new, emerging technologies that hold promise for recovering MMFP. SPC partnered with the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners collaborated on the FlexPack Recovery Challenge, an open competition launched in October 2018 for entrepreneurs and startups to submit new ideas for reprocessing technologies capable of recovering multi-material flexible packaging waste.

Startups and entrepreneurs from all over the world entered the Challenge with a wide variety of recovery technology and business models. The finalists selected are representative  of the geographical and technological scope of innovators working to solve the problem of recovery options for multi material flexible packaging, including mechanical recycling, delamination and chemical conversion technologies.  Working with academic and industry advisors, Closed Loop Partners and the SPC selected the following companies as finalists:

Read more about the five finalists here.

Read a full description and results of the FlexPack Recovery Challenge here.

Several of the Finalists represented different types of feedstock recycling technologies. A major learning from this Challenge was the potential of feedstock recycling technologies to recover more MMFP. 

Our Findings

Developing a sustainable solution to recover multi-material films will require solutions across all phases of the recovery system. After reviewing findings across the various relevant initiatives and industry working groups, as well as learnings gained in our own projects,  some key lessons and next steps have emerged which offer a promising roadmap towards sustainable recycling solutions for multi-material flexible packaging.

Design for Recovery Insights

  • Design changes can positively impact the recyclability of multi material flexible packaging. It is important to always assess the performance needs of your package, and evaluate whether a multi-material structure is necessary. If it is not necessary to use multiple materials, then companies can switch to a mono-material format which is more readily recyclable through store drop-off programs or curbside collection in some places. 
  • If it is not possible to change designs to a mono-material format due to proven needs for barriers or other reasons, other design choices can be made. Compatibilizers can be used with polyethylene (PE) based multi-material films. This technology is now available directly within the film. This simplifies the recycling process as it prevents processors from needing to know film compositions to estimate compatibilizer amounts and permits for recycling directly with existing polyethylene streams.
  • Emerging data is suggests that post consumer multi-material flexible packaging may eventually be collected and sorted through a curbside system, a few observations were noted in how well package design interfaced with optical or near infrared (NIR) sorters in MRFs:
    • High glossy surfaces should be avoided as these are too difficult for optical sorters to recognize.
    • Black or very dark objects may not provide enough light for optical sorters to recognize.

The ability to create multi-material compostable films is another opportunity to consider. According to European Standard EN 13432, and supported by ATSM D6400, compostable films must breakdown a minimum of 90% into CO2, water and minerals within an industrial composting setting within six months. Additionally, they must not leave any harmful residue behind. Films designated to be compostable can be labelled by either the European OK Compost label,  the Biodegradable Products Institute(BPI) label, or the SPC’s How2Compost label, after proving that they pass ASTM D6400 requirements in an approved laboratory test.

Collection Findings

  • Curbside collection options as well as specialized collection systems are limited for MMFP. However there are pilot systems that show promise to be scaled. While the Hefty Energy Bag project we highlighted above offers promise in aggregating the collection of hard-to-recycle plastics, and suggests that bagged plastics can be collected curbside, the Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) report suggests that a loose automated collection process, similar to current single-stream collection, has more potential to be scalable and cost-effective than bagged films – particularly with large-scale MRFs. 
  • As we have seen with other recycling programs, engaging consumer participation is key to ensuring participation and quality. An increasing number of studies on recycling behavior for plastics and other materials reinforces the need to provide clear and easy to understand messaging through a multiple of channels. Additionally, the use of images is highly recommended.
  • While compostability may be an option, collection and acceptance of compostable films still remain limited in most municipalities, and access to industrial composting is significantly restricted as a result of limited permitted facilities. Therefore, any design of compostable multilayer films should be accompanied by investments in the collection. 

Sortation Findings

  • While some flexible films have been known to clog disc screens at MRFS, causing physical disruptions to equipment, multi-material flexible packaging does not appear to pose a challenge by wrapping around equipment in MRFs. All studies confirmed that the two-dimensional nature of multi-material flexible packaging creates a natural flow within single-stream MRF sorting lines towards paper streams. Ejecting these from the paper stream is likely where the best solution for sortation may be found. Success was demonstrated by the MRFF project by adding optical sorters to the paper stream. 
  • There are a variety of existing and emerging technologies that offer significant promise for sorting multi-material flexible packaging along the MRF sortation line. Recommendations for further testing are encouraged. Promising technologies include the use of:
    • Near-infrared (NIR) optical sorters to detect multi-material films.
    • Optical sorters to direct plastics, combined with the use of airflow, to eject films towards an independent collection point, is a promising format for films of all types.
    • The use of a digital watermark on the packaging, which would be undetectable to the human eye, but could be read by optical sorters demonstrated much promise.

Although these technologies offer potential promise for sortation, the economics of end market sales will dictate their long-term adoption.

Processing and End Markets

  • Opportunities for mechanical recycling of multi-material flexible packaging are limited. Mechanical recycling refers to operations that aim to recover plastics waste via mechanical processes (i.e. grinding, washing, separating, drying, re-granulating and compounding). The technical capability does exist to mechanically recycle polyolefin based multi-material flexible packaging (in limited quantity).  The challenge with existing processes for mechanical recycling of multi-material flexible packaging is the need to know what the incoming resin composition is and keeping it consistent and relatively clean. This makes it highly challenging to use multi-material flexible packaging collected at the curbside where much of this information is unknown and unpredictable. Most existing processes can typically use only a small percentage of MMFP, due to this variability of input, so MMFP represents a small percentage of the composition of the product produced (see example end markets from mixed flexible packaging on page 26 of the MRFF report). As more information and processes are tested for effective collection and sortation, wider application of these technologies may emerge.
  • New technologies are emerging that use chemical solvents to dissolve bonds between layers, separating them. These processes can be added onto existing mechanical recycling processes and can expand the markets to those of distinct polymers, rather than send the package to a mixed plastics bale. These technologies are very promising additions to the capabilities of mechanical recycling for MMFP, however have yet to be applied at scale. Often these technologies require pure streams of specific laminated packaging types, as different solvents work to separate different combinations of layers (i.e. PET/PET), and one solvent may not work for all varieties of MMFP in mixed plastics bales. 

Read about Mechanical recycling options for MMFP here.

  • Reprocessing options for multi-material flexible packaging includes more than just mechanical recycling. Chemical Recycling is a broad term that applies to many different technologies. For multi-material flexible packaging, so-called “Feedstock Recycling” technologies that  reconstitute plastic films to liquid hydrocarbons is an opportunity area for multi material film recovery. Feedstock recycling is achieved by heating the plastic at high temperatures in a chamber that is either void of oxygen (pyrolysis) or uses oxygen and steam (gasification), with many variations of these processes being developed. From the hydrocarbon outputs (i.e. the feedstock), a variety of end products may be created. This can include fuel, but also chemicals, new plastics, waxes and other products. 
  • Emerging research on the best available technologies suggests this may be one of the most sustainable and viable options currently available for the end of life management of multi-material flexible packaging. However, most of these technologies are still in the pilot stage and the economics of the market are still emerging, with markets currently in favor of fuels instead of plastics outputs.  As sortation and collection of significant volumes is still a challenge, the processing of multi-material flexible packaging only is unlikely to produce sufficient volume, additional plastics to supplement processing demand is likely. So instead, mixed plastic waste inputs are preferred. 

Read about Mechanical recycling options for MMFP here.

  • Waste-to-energy (WTE) is the process of generating energy in the form of electricity and/or heat from the combustion of mixed waste, including multi-material flexible packaging left for disposal. While waste-to-energy is a commonly accepted practice in many European countries, it is less popular in North America. However, it still represents a significant end market for MMFP in North America. As seen in our Technology Recovery Map, incineration represents the largest end market for pre-consumer MMFP waste, for example, used by cement kilns who burn and use this for energy. Another popular end market was for use as engineered fuel pellets, which are also set to be burned for energy/fuel.   
  • Currently, there are no large scale operations available to create end products from multi-material flexible packaging. While some pilots offer promise, further research estimating and understanding end markets for multi-material packaging would help develop interest and funding for end market development. Materials Recovery for the Future has started this process but more research is needed. One reason much of the current end markets are represented by fuel or energy is due to a lack of robust, alternative end markets.

These findings suggest there is a future for the recovery of multi-material flexible packaging through mechanical and chemical recycling, and also compost. However,significantly more investment, research and innovation is required for any of these options to scale. Long term viability of these different recovery options will be dependent upon the development of viable end markets. Most of the efforts to-date have increased our understanding of best practices in collection and sortation, but all identify that significant more work needs to be invested into developing economically viable end markets. Once a robust revenue source is established for post-consumer multi-material flexible packaging, it will be easier to justify the investments required to drive further collection and sortation

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Answers to your most common questions about multi-material flexible packaging recovery

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Resources

Definitions of common terms in this space and resources for further reading.

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Participating Members