Axion Consulting is leading a collaborative two-year project involving high-profile global brands, such as Nestle and Unilever UK Central Resources Ltd, aimed at significantly improving the recyclability of flexible packaging and diverting more of it from landfill.
The 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. And also joining the project are Amcor Ltd, Dow Chemical Company Ltd, Interflex Group, SITA Holdings UK Ltd and TOMRA Sorting Ltd.
“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.”
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 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.
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.
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.