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.
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.
Quite often, when any new material is introduced into the marketplace, recycling is a step behind. The cycle of innovation requires that as needs arise and markets grow, investment into solutions will advance. This dynamic relationship between demand, innovation and economics is what created our existing recycling systems in the first place. Many of the materials accepted by public recycling systems today were established during wartime when demand for resources was high. The government and military contractors relied on the re-use of materials and invested in systems for their sorting and processing. 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 solutions. Market economics always has, and will, continue to play a role in driving sustainable recovery systems.
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.
– Identification of technologies and best practices to process materials.
– Identification of cost effective collection systems.
– Regulatory approvals and legislative support granted (as needed).
– End markets develop over time as a result of economics, regulatory and manufacturer support.
– Consumer education and participation in collection to ensure adequate recovery rates tend to occur over a long time period.
– End market development takes time and may be influenced by global economics.
Initiatives to find effective recycling solutions for multi-material flexible packaging have tackled some, or all, of these challenges. Some projects and pilots have identified solutions to specific challenges, but the key to addressing all aspects of the recovery system is still illusive. Yet, as we know from the history of recovery, solutions are dynamic; innovations and understandings will continue to develop and amend over time.
Mapping Challenges for Multi-Material Recycling Across the Recovery System
- No standard design for multi-material films
- The use of multiple layers of different films, adhesives, and sealants makes it difficult to separate by resin type
- Risk of food contamination makes retail ready collection less likely
- Consumers not aware of what can be put in Store Drop-off bin
- Too many different designs makes it impossible to identify resin composition
- Material ends up with paper because of its 2D format and light weight
- Many films are contaminated by food and drink
- Multiple designs on market makes it difficult to identify at post-consumer level
- Limited upcycle markets currently available but not economically viable
- Some alternative conversion technologies require consistent volumes and quantities which are difficult to achieve from post-consumer collection
- Downcycling growing
The projects listed below are initiatives designed to answer questions around the potential recovery of hard-to-recycle plastics including multi-material films.
Please note that none of these projects addressed multi-material films independently. In order to meet cost effective collection, sortation or processing, projects typically included a variety of hard-to-recycle plastics.
The Energy Bag Phases 1 & 2 (2014- present)
The Hefty Energy Bag, manufactured by Dow Chemical Company has run two pilot programs to test the feasibility of using existing municipal waste management infrastructure to collect, sort, and direct traditionally non-recyclable plastics toward energy conversion.
Flexible Aluminum (Containing Laminate) Collection Trials (2015-2016)
A pilot project based within the UK established to understand the potential to develop a curbside collection and processing program for aluminum-containing packaging. The program evaluated three different communities all with different curbside programs and population.
Reflex (Recycling of Flexible Packaging) Project 2014-2016
Based in the UK, REFLEX was a collaborative research and development project designed to understand and address the technical barriers to mechanical recycling of flexible plastic packaging in the post-consumer waste stream. The initial aims of REFLEX were completed in 2016. Further work will now be transferred to CEFLEX to help develop and grow insights for application across all of Europe.
Flexible Packaging in a circular economy (FIACE) 2016-2017
Based in the EU, this project seeks to document the value added by flexible packaging solutions, as well as identify future opportunities which would provide the potential to further ‘close the loop.’ The project explores food-contact flexible films, including multi-material structures. FIACE intentionally excluded research on collection and sortation which is believed to be covered by other initiatives. Effective 2017, FIACE has merged with CEFLEX.
Circular economy for flexible packaging (CEFLEX) 2017- Present
Anticipated to launch in May 2017, Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) intends to explore 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 will all feed into this project in order to drive a solution applicable across Europe.
Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) 2015 – Present
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.
Developing a sustainable solution to recover multi-material films will require solutions across all phases of the recovery system
In summarizing the key findings found in the final reports issued by the various collaborative projects, key lessons and next steps begin to emerge which offer a promising roadmap towards sustainable recycling solutions for multi-material flexible packaging.
It should be noted that none of the projects looked at multi-material flexible packaging independently. Plastics were often aggregated in order to establish the volume needed to meet processing demands.
Industry Working Groups
Sustainable recovery solutions for multi-material flexible packaging will require extensive collaboration amongst stakeholders; including sharing between industries.
Considering the significant advantages to using multi-material flexible packaging, many users and manufacturers continue to seek sustainable solutions for their end of life. Evaluating lifecycle impacts of different recovery schemes, identifying opportunities to improve processes, and seeking to drive recycling options are common objectives by a variety of industry coalitions. Below is a list of many of the current industry initiatives exploring viable solutions to increase the recovery options of multi-material packaging.
American Chemistry Council: Plastics to Fuel & Petrochemistry Alliance (PTF)
Formed in 2014, this group seeks to increase the awareness of plastics-to-fuel (PTF) technologies with the aim to establish PTF into a strong and viable alternative energy industry. Additionally, the group seeks to increase understanding of the sustainability benefits of using this technology as a recovery solution for difficult to recover plastics. Engagement is through paid membership to the Alliance.
Flexible Packaging Resource Recovery Task Group
This ongoing working group of the Flexible Packaging Association seeks to facilitate the advancement of flexible packaging recovery, with a focus on recovery options. Only members of the Flexible Packaging Association may be engaged; although the task group and association do have a history of sharing resources and collaborating with peers on like-minded projects.
Website: Flexible Packaging Association
PACNEXT: Multi-Material Film & Bags Committee
PACNEXT launched the Multi-Material Film & Bags project committee in 2011 in order to assess opportunities for improving cost effective film recovery. The committee is currently working on a collaborative project with Stewardship Ontario, the Continuous Improvement Fund and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. The project aims to demonstrate the feasibility of recycling post-consumer multi-material flexible packaging. They are currently performing a trial with three end-processors.
Engagement in this committee is through membership with PACNEXT
Mechanical Recycling Options
The ability to chemically recycle multi-material flexible packaging exists but the challenge is finding a solution that works with the unknowns found in curbside collection.
Other End-of-Life Options
Recovery options for multi-material flexible packaging includes more than just recycling. Creative thinking in design and end products can permit for increased opportunity.
Plastics-to-fuel: The chemical reconstitution of plastic films to a synthetic oil. This is done by heating the plastic at high temperatures in a chamber that is void of oxygen. Once converted into synthesis oil, a variety of end products may be created.
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 waste-to-fuel technologies are still in the pilot stage and the economics of the market are still emerging. 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.
Waste-to-energy: 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. Access to facilities may be limited and the ability to re-use materials is eliminated.
Compostability and composting: 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.
While compostability may be an option, collection and acceptance of compostable films still remains limited in most municipalities, and access to industrial composting is significantly restricted as a result of limited permitted facilities.
- Happy Family Brands
- Printpack, Inc.
- Keurig Green Mountain, Inc.
- Dow Chemical Company
- delfort USA, Inc.
- Mars, Incorporated
- BillerudKorsnäs USA LLC
- Constantia Flexibles International GmbH
- Seventh Generation
- ExxonMobil Chemical Co.
- Nestlé USA
- Seattle Public Utilities
- American Packaging Corporation
- Danone North America
- Barilla America
- General Mills, Inc.
- Bemis Company, Inc.
- Solvay Specialty Polymers USA, LLC
- Clif Bar & Co.
- Jindal Films
- Kellogg Company, The
- Charter NEX Films