Blog: A flexible future for packaging capture and reprocessing

Scope of the debate?

The third instalment in the new series of deep dive sessions jointly hosted by SUEZ and CIWM saw a panel of experts, from across the packaging value chain, discuss what is next for flexible packaging here in the UK, consider how it could be included in future UK collection systems, and reflect on the potential impact EPR and DRS reforms on this packaging format.

In addition, the panel shared insights from a number of ongoing projects that have been investigating collection and recycling opportunities for flexible packaging (flexibles) and looked to the future in terms of improved packaging design, collection system innovation and technology advancements that might help ensure that flexible packaging not only becomes mainstream in terms of materials management but features centrally within the new circular economy whilst adhering to safety and hygiene standards and consumer expectations.

In this blog Dr. Adam Read (External Affairs Director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK) and CIWM’s Helen Chaplin reflect on what was a very engaging webinar, consider the key talking points, investigate the poll results, and summarise the consensus in terms of the way forward for flexibles in the UK.

What’s the issue?

An estimated 217 billion flexible packaging items are sold annually in the UK, equivalent to 395,000 tonnes or 4% of the household waste being put out every week. This prominent material stream clearly needs addressing, but for many it is a loose group of packaging formats and types, making it harder to deal with than some other material streams. According to the Flexible Packaging Association, ‘flexible packaging is any package or any part of a package whose shape can be readily changed’ and in this webinar the focus was on plastic bags, pouches, shrink films, tubes and sleeves giving the panellists plenty of examples to talk through.

The webinar, chaired by Pat Jennings (CIWM’s Head of Policy, Knowledge & External Affairs) opened proceedings with a poll question, in which 74% of the audience agreed or strongly agreed that a target 65% recycling rate (for both household and household like waste) can’t be achieved without expanding recycling collections and processing to include flexibles. This showed that the audience was already switched on to collect these materials and resulted in plenty of discussion as the session developed, responding to real-time questions from the audience concerning how this might be delivered.

Packaging design?

An important consideration in the ultimate recycling of flexibles is that of their design. Adam Herriott (a Sector Specialist at WRAP) identified that there is a clear need to simplify packaging design and that this is part of UK Plastic Pacts flexibles roadmap, with packaging designed to protect its content and with the end of its life in mind. Ideally, Adam suggested that if a pouch or film could be a mono-material then it should be able to be recycled in a mechanical way, or through chemical reprocessing. As part of the UK Plastic Pact, signatories that reflect most of the major brands and retailers selling flexible packaging in the UK, must commit to 100% of plastic packaging by 2025 to be reusable, recyclable or compostable, and that includes flexible packaging formats. This is a huge increase on the current state of affairs with only 15% of authorities offering any form of collection of this material, and most of that doesn’t end up recycled.

Alison Bramfitt (Group Packaging Manager at Nestlé UK) agreed and said they were looking to develop ‘packaging for the future’ by redesigning for simpler structures and rethinking packaging and its role. The Nestle golden rules must now be followed by all designers when it comes to their packaging, and specific rules now exist for plastic films. Nestle are going one step further than design simplification to aid recycling, by actively evaluating new solutions to reduce the use of plastics within their packaging, including reusable packaging formats and reusable and refillable delivery systems (like the new LOOP programme). Although Nestle’s focus is currently on materials that are recyclable (paper and card packaging) they are also exploring compostable and biodegradable materials to see if they could be part of their move away from plastics. For example, their whole range of Smarties packaging is becoming paper based by quarter one of 2021. Alison believes that compostable packaging could play a role in situations where it wasn’t possible to separate food from the packaging, but recognised that the infrastructure to support compostable materials reprocessing isn’t currently available in the UK. However, she recognised the obvious need to be clear with consumers about what they should do with any new packaging format or material if they decide to introduce it to the UK market.

Nestle are also moving to simpler structures and moving away from complex laminates where functional properties can be gained by similar structures as has been the case for KitKats. However, Alison commented on the sustainability versus functionality debate, one that all brands fully appreciate, and the struggle to find a suitable material to fit the functional requirements when moving away from laminates.

Andrew Bird (Head of Recycling and Fleet Services at Newcastle-under-Lyme BC) shared a good example of where changing materials actually hindered the recycling process in the case of a bread bag that used to be a plastic film that could have been recycled, which had been replaced by a composite film which couldn’t be recycled. He expressed concern that we need to think carefully how we will actually recycle these materials, and that we must avoid taking a step backwards and having unintended consequences from ill-informed decisions at the design stage of the packaging’s life.

Front of store collections?

One of the places where flexibles are currently collected is the front of supermarket stores, enabling the enthusiastic recycler to do their bit, and they are engaging really well with it. Steve Morgan (Policy & Infrastructure Manager at RECOUP) showcased that front of store collections have potentially a huge role to play in the immediate future. Recoup conducted analysis on the materials collected at Co-Op and M&S sites and they discovered that 94% of the materials presented were recyclable within the collection bins. Both retailers, and Recoup themselves, expected more paper receipts and compostable bags to be in the containers, but they found very little. They also identified that lots of care had gone into the materials being deposited for recycling, as bags were clean and folded. Furthermore, it didn’t seem to matter if flexibles were being collected at the kerbside or not in the local authority area around these sites, as they found just as much plastic film in the ‘in-store’ collection in towns that collected at kerbside as those that didn’t.

Adam acknowledged that front of store collections are part of the flexibles roadmap for the UK Plastic Pact, and that they are looking to do promotions around front of store with retailers, linking the collection points with the on-line Recycle Now locator tool that now gets 2million hits a year from residents looking for locations to recycle films and flexibles – the highest ranked search by material type on the Recycle Now website.

Sarah Ottaway (Sustainability & Social Value Lead at SUEZ UK) stated that they are working with EPIC (Environment and Plastics Industry Council) to investigate expanding front of store collection opportunities across a range of supermarkets and to expand this service as an interim measure and as a way of getting people used to the idea of recycling flexibles and films before more mainstream solutions are developed. Angela Fredericks (Senior Industrial Issues Executive at the British Plastics Federation) was also keen to see more collection systems at front of store as millennials are very conscious of their environmental footprint and are inclined to support such services.

Alison stated that Nestle are also very supportive of retailers being open to take forward some form of flexibles collection or capture, and see it as an opportunity to test and learn about what works and how to communicate effectively to consumers about this type of packaging and the services provided.

However, our panellists were in total agreement that this was an ‘interim solution’, and in order to increase the volume of flexibles being captured and recycled they would need to be collected in kerbside collections in some form, given that only a small proportion of the UK population have easy access to front of store solutions.

DRS as a positive influence on flexible capture?

Our panellists concurred that when a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) is implemented (expected from 2023 in England and Wales, and earlier if you are in Scotland), it is going to create space in existing recycling fleets when target materials (glass bottles, plastic bottles, aluminium cans etc.) are removed and this would allow space for items such as flexibles and films to be collected, and at minimal cost compared to a new service dedicated to this materials stream. Sarah commented on some work that SUEZ have competed on behalf of a consortium of companies with significant levels of flexible packaging, where they have estimated that flexibles would need about 30% of the space created by the removal of these other materials should they be collected from the kerbside as part of a new consistent collections regime. Sarah also noted that the research suggests that they would achieve a 56% capture rate of flexibles from the kerbside, in line with the amount of other plastics collected at kerbside. The summary report of this research should be available soon and forms part of a number of ongoing industry working groups investigating the opportunity and costs of brining flexibles into kerbside collection.

However, Sarah rightly identified that care would need to be taken over the fibres (paper and cardboard) being collected alongside flexibles if a comingled collection is utilised, as the fibres are very vulnerable to contamination from the pouches and films which often have residues on them. It would be possible to protect fibres within a separate bag in a comingled collection, as Andrew has done in his local authority, but future consideration of the mix of pouches likely to be collected might influence the future choice of overall collection service. To reduce the risk of contamination and decreased materials market value, segregated collections at the kerbside for flexible packaging (possibly with other plastic streams) from fibrous streams might be ideal, and given that 78% of flexible packaging are designated as wet (with product left in them) you can see why.

The introduction of DRS will also mean that MRFs will need to adjust their operations as the composition of the materials going through them will change. Sarah believes that 2D and 3D separators which are typically used for separating fibres from other materials could be adapted as a first stage of sorting the flexibles, especially if fibres are collected separately. Sarah recommended making the changes to a MRF in one go when DRS comes in, as it would cause more disruption making incremental changes over a period of time for some compositional changes and then more compositional changes (say flexibles) a few years later.

Capture is king?

Our audience were clear in the next poll that increasing collection rates along with developing end markets were the biggest challenge to increasing the recycling of flexible packaging.

Andrew commented that local authorities play a strategic role in the supply chain in deciding what happens to the material and whether it can go for recycling, reuse or remanufacture or if it needs to go for disposal. He believes there is too much variance in the materials collected by councils, which is why recycling rates of flexibles have stalled. Our audience agreed with him during the third poll, with the overwhelming majority supporting the proposal that including flexibles in the core set of local authority collected materials would be the most effective measure to improve capture and quality of flexible packaging for recycling.

Currently Germany and The Netherlands are collecting plastic films and flexibles for recycling at scale, with their own reprocessing sites. Sarah was confident that it would be possible to do something similar in the UK, but that flexibles must be included as a core material for household collection from 2023 (and not deferred until 2025 or later as some have suggested), and that their research for the flexibles consortium strongly favours 2023 being deliverable. Angela agreed, stating that if we want to hit future recycling targets then we have to collect it from now! However, Steve warned that we will need to use our time wisely so that we are really ready by 2023 to collect and reprocess this material. Andrew agreed that managing this transition period carefully is vitally important to make sure we’ve got something sustainable in place to manage the material in the long term.

Alison also agreed with this cautionary point, but firmly believed that as we collect more of these materials so a value will be placed on them allowing the end markets to develop. This is the vision of the EPIC programme.

Although Sarah agreed with these words of caution, she stated that it wasn’t a sufficient reason to pause, but that this was indeed the time to grab the opportunity of including flexibles in the consistent collections agenda which would allow the rest of the value chain to align, and work together collaboratively to create the end market solutions.

Consumer behaviour?

Alison stated that Nestle (and other brands) mustn’t forget the consumer as they are vital in ensuring these materials are recycled, and as a result they have launched a Teracycle collection programme for confectionary and pet food packaging. She also stated it was important to create consistent messaging for consumers such as “collect all plastics” to make it easy and remove any confusion. She also acknowledged that it will be increasingly important to look at how packaging is labelled to ensure we can inform consumers how to dispose of items in the right way. Sarah supported this stating that OPRL’s new binary labelling system will be easy to implement across the country when consistent collections come on stream, with simple yes (recycle) or no (don’t) labels.

Andrew agreed, sharing that the biggest area of resident enquiries to the council is about understanding what can be recycles through their kerbside scheme. Despite lots of communication efforts to date, over twenty plus years, people are still confused. He continued that “in reality we can collect anything, after all collect all materials at the moment (in one bin or another), so it’s just about collecting them differently”. Sarah expressed the importance of communication when introducing a new collection service, or a service change, and how important simplicity is. Steve agreed, stating it’s a challenge to keep material clean and this will need a huge effort and investment in communications to make sure the consumer does the right thing, bit that with EPR reforms brands will take up the challenge of consumer engagement about recycling packaging post use far more than they have ever done in the past!

End markets need help?

The panellists mentioned how as there are very few local authorities collecting it, there are very few companies recycling it. But by ensuring there are strong and stable end markets it will help grow the demand for the material to be collected.

As Adam stated, a lot of flexible material is used for food contact which means that, when it is chemically recycled it doesn’t always retain the right properties for food grade standard again. However, chemical recycling does mean we will have a more circular approach for that material. Sarah stated that although chemical recycling is an exciting area it’s not essential to the transition as mechanical recycling can cope with a lot of these materials, particularly if room at the MRF is freed up by DRS targeting up to 30% of their input stream.

Angela commented how flexibles are recyclable, as 80% of the flexible packaging market contains structures that are mono material, which in theory makes them easy to recycle. Sarah agreed, stating that 70-80% of the flexibles on the market are mono PP and PE which can be managed through MRFs and on to the end market.

Examples of non-food contact packaging that flexibles can be recycled into include black rubbish bags, carrier bags and stretch wrap, and non-packaging items including park benches, construction materials and pipes, and car bumpers.

In addition, there are five companies in the UK investing in chemical recycling, and more opportunities are opening up all the time. Angela stressed the importance of not stifling innovation, and the emerging technologies need feedstock which is why it must be collected as part of the consistency agenda form 2023.

Andrew discussed how the volatility in markets has a massive impact on finances which impacts on what they are able to do, and although they want to be able to collect them it has to be part of a long-term sustainable system. He also hoped that with the new EPR reforms that if producers keep ownership of the packaging then the price volatility might improve as we get a more stable playing field. Sarah suggested that what the system needs is clarity on the collections agenda, will flexibles be in and from 2023, 2025 or beyond, because without this clarity investment decisions can’t be made.

Sarah shared some of the SUEZ research findings ahead of the reports launch, with over 1 million tonnes (annually) of UK based recycling capacity due online to deal with post-consumer plastics by 2023. She believes this is an under estimation as there as plans that couldn’t be shared when they were talking to the market. So, the future looks bright if we can align the policy discussions.

Angela stressed the importance of collecting this material, because if we don’t start collecting it now, we won’t have enough material to put back into the packaging that we use in the future, particularly given the likely impact of the Plastic Tax on increasing recycled content beyond 30% from 2021. Adam agreed with this, referencing some recent research he did where the feedback from the end users (manufacturers) was that they were asking where they could get secondary material from, which does demonstrate a growing demand.

Sarah concluded that as much as it’s a chicken and egg scenario, everything needs to work in a defined timeframe for it to work together. Angela agreed that there are challenges with collecting the material, but that there are solutions and possibilities out there in the market place and we need to find a way to work together to create the outcome we need by 2023 when the reforms come into play. Very much a call to arms for the sector and those interested in this material stream.

Conclusions

During the session it became clear that this is a very exciting time in the industry with EPR, DRS, the Plastic Tax and consistent collections providing a unique opportunity to add flexibles into kerbside collections and respond to the expected increase in end market demand for recycled content. Although front of store collections are showing high engagement levels, our panellists were in agreement that this was an interim solution, and that DRS would provide the real opportunity to use the space created in fleets for these flexible packaging formats. With some of the expected changes in packaging design, with a focused and simple communications push with residents, a consistent supply of material to the end market and collaboration across the supply chain, film and flexibles recycling will stand a strong chance of being successful and helping to deliver the 65% recycling rate target. But that requires a lot of moving pieces to fall in line and collaborate in less than 3 years – watch this space!

Once again, we would like to thank the panellists for their time, insight and honesty, and all of the delegates for their participation in the polls and for asking so many excellent questions, some of which we just simply ran out of time to ask –  so many in fact that we have included a Q&A sheet here with some of the ones we didn’t get around to asking.

To watch the recording of the webinar follow the link here and watch out for more CIWM and Suez webinars coming soon.

If you are a CIWM member, you can also discuss this topic and other current issues on Connect where the panellists and chairs are ready to engage on these and many other hot topics.

Written by: Dr Adam Read (External Affairs Director at Suez recycling and recovery UK & CIWM Senior Vice President) and Helen Chaplin (Technical Development Executive at CIWM).

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