Square the circle

3 December 2020



Packaging waste and its reduction or removal continues to be of key concern to both consumers and the brands that supply them. Despite the intrusion of coronavirus into the consumer psyche in 2020, packaging materials companies and value chains have been working incredibly hard on solutions for a circular economy. By volume, flexible packaging represents the majority of packaging used worldwide, and yet historically has had lower recycling rates and capabilities. Graham Houlder, CEFLEX project coordinator, and Liz Morrish, CEFLEX workstream consultant and Design for a Circular Economy (D4ACE) lead, discuss the new guidelines developed and how they will help the flexible packaging industry achieve a circular future.


As part of his work with CEFLEX, a collaborative initiative of a European consortium of companies representing the entire value chain of flexible packaging, project coordinator Graham Houlder knows that about 80% of the 3.7 million tonnes of flexible packaging waste consists of mono materials. Plastic, paper and foil are not hard to recycle if they are collected properly, as they are a singular material. Having established the rough make-up of the market, Houlder highlights one of the key questions, which is why should we, as an industry, transition to a circular economy?

“The main reason is that society has realised that we can’t continue to consume resources indefinitely. We need to take those resources and use them as efficiently as possible,” he says. “When we finished using them, we should bring them back to the economy so that they can be reused. If we can’t make flexible packaging circular, there’s a very good chance that we’re going to be regulated out or lose our ability to put flexible packaging onto the market. Replacing the functionality from flexible packaging would be very difficult, if not impossible, from other materials and packaging formats. Secondly, it is undesirable because all of those other formats have significantly higher resource uses and carbon footprints than flexible packaging does.

“We all know the marine litter issues, the plastic letter issues, these have to be fixed and if we can drive and improve collection, that’s going to be a big step forward in terms of reducing the amount of materials that leak into the environment,” Houlder continues. “It’s not a panacea to solve this issue, we’re going to need lots of other initiatives in terms of education and changing society’s value system in terms of what literature they accept or don’t accept. But it’s an important first step.”

The next steps

In total, there are five steps that CEFLEX believes are necessary to deliver the circular economy for flexible packaging. “They’re not very complicated,” Houlder notes. However, implementing them at the scale that CEFLEX are looking at is not a small challenge, driving all collection, sorting and recycling, looking at the multi-materials and redesigning them to become modern materials, and looking at alternative solutions for multi-material flexible packaging, which remains tough to recycle fully.

In parallel with all of those, Houlder says, “We have to find and develop end markets that are sustainable, and that the potential users of these materials are not only willing but want to use them because they represent a sustainable business choice for them. So, rather than try and force the use of recycled materials, recycled plastics, by mandatory recycled content, we would much prefer to see these materials being pulled by the potential users of these materials. That way we don’t disturb the natural economics of plastic markets.”

Houlder paused to focus on a second but crucial topic, which is why flexible packaging is not already designed to be circular. He is clear that circular economy is a new concept, one not widely understood by the public. “There was no pressure to recycle these resources. And so, flexible packaging was designed to be resource efficient, and the focus was on designing and functionality,” he notes. “Today, it’s a very different picture. Designing to be recycled and returning those materials to the economy is a given. And it is taking some time for designers and all parts of the value chain to understand what that means for the parts that they responsible for. [But] we are getting there.”

The launch of the CEFLEX guidelines is, as Houlder explains, “a key step forward to aligning the whole industry behind a credible set of guidelines, which has been developed with input from the full value chain over a period of time. While we are focused on the first step now, it’s vital to mention that there are two others. This is like a three-legged milking stool – if you don’t have all three legs stable, the stool falls over. To create a truly sustainable circular economy, it’s equally important that we work on the other two legs, the infrastructure and the business case, to make that circular economy sustainable.”

Houlder re-emphasised the benefits of flexible packaging in a circular economy. “The better-quality materials you put into the system, the easier, cheaper and more economical it is to turn out good quality materials so that they can be used again. These design guidelines are focused on consumer flexible packaging, which means they have a very important role to play in the overall society getting food and other products safely to consumers so that they can be used.”

The finer details

“The aim of the guidelines is really to bring clarity to the whole value chain of how to design flexible packaging so that it’s suitable to be collected once it’s been used – so, it’s sortable and it’s recyclable,” says Liz Morrish, CEFLEX workstream consultant and Design for a Circular Economy (D4ACE) lead, who led the development of the guidelines. “And the reason why we’re doing that, as [Houlder] has explained, is to help increase those levels of collection, sorting and recycling, both to achieve our recycling targets that we have but also to achieve circularity.”

Another key aim of the guidelines is to produce higher-quality recycled materials, so that they can then be kept in the economy using sustainable end markets. CEFLEX wants these guidelines to act as a catalyst to get the value chain working together to facilitate those design changes, so that more recyclable flexible packaging is placed on the market, ending up in consumer homes and then entering the waste stream. At the same time, CEFLEX hopes that the guidelines will provide the waste management and the recycling sector with increased confidence so that they will make those investments and develop all of the collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure that is needed.

Morrish echoes what Houlder had said that the hope is the guidelines will be used throughout Europe, to support the value chain and its confidence in the collection and waste reduction of flexible packaging. “The guidelines really are for the whole value chain – for anybody that works within the flexible packaging chain,” she says. “Primarily, that starts with the brandowners and the retailers because they’re designing and specifying the packaging. We need them to take these guidelines, and adopt and implement them.

“However, all the other parts of the value chain also have a really important part to pay. The film producers, the packaging converters – obviously they’re going to have to make the structures so that they can be sortable and recyclable. The material producers need to put polymers, or even some adhesives that fit and adhere to these guidelines, onto the market. The technology suppliers also need to be involved in adopting the guidelines, so that we’ve got the right manufacturing equipment to actually produce the packaging, but also at the sorting and recycling end of the value chain. And then, finally, the end users. We need people to use these recycled materials and really give that pool to the whole value chain.”

Morrish provides some more detail into the origins of the guidelines, how they were designed and where they came from. “We began these guidelines about three years ago, as one of the first activities that we started within the initiative,” she explains.

CEFLEX then went through many iterations of the draft guidelines, ensuring at each step that it received comments and expertise from the value chain. In 2019 and early 2020, it ran some consultation exercises with targeted trade and industry parties and associations. It also had an open consultation where anybody was able to download the draft guidelines, review them and provide their feedback, allowing the whole value chain to have a voice, rather than just focusing on one part.

Morrish hopes that these guidelines will provide a major step forward for achieving circularity for flexibles. “For our first phase of guidelines, we focused on polyolefins for a couple of reasons,” she notes. “Firstly, they make up the largest proportion of the consumer flexible packaging that enters the waste stream – about 70–80%. Secondly, the technologies to mechanically recycle the structures are already proven for industrial scale – there are companies already doing this across Europe. There will be future phases of the guidelines. We’re making a start on phase two at the moment – that will include some of the non-polyolefin materials, and also work to add new thresholds and guidance to some other elements as well.”

A key part of the guidelines, where Morrish thinks CEFLEX’s guidelines differ to some of the others out there, is that it wants to build understanding across the whole value chain – about the end of life processes, what happens to the flexible packaging once the consumers use the product, once it’s gone into the bin, and once it enters the waste and the recycling infrastructure.

Material world

The guidelines do have a preference in materials – mono P and mono PP. These mono-materials are easier to recycle, so there’s less of a mix and less incompatibility from the materials. And, importantly, mono-materials also improve the quality of the recylate at the end of the process, which is vital for keeping as much of that financial value in the system as possible. Mono PP is at the top of CEFLEX’s preferences, followed by mixed polyolefin structure, so a mixture of P and PP, and then finally mixed plastics as well.

The guidelines cover the key elements of the packaging structure. “One key element in the make-up of the structure is whether that’s an additive an inker lacquer, and the density of the material, the pigments and the colour,” Morrish notes. “Material choice plays a key role in saying whether a structure can be sorted and whether it can be recycled.

“We have some thresholds for what composition of those structures need to be. And so, to be fully compatible with a P or PP recycling process, we’re looking at more than 90% of that material. So, for mono P to be fully compatible with a P recycling process, you need at least 90% P in that structure. Limited compatibility is between 80–90%. For structures with less than 80%, they’re not going to be compatible because there’s too many other materials that are going to cause an issue for the recycler.”

These guidelines provide a straightforward and tough, but achievable, way to reduce waste in flexible packaging. By attempting to use mono-materials where possible, this will reduce the stress on recyclers to retain material, and give them the ability to put more back into the loop. While there are still discussions to be had on how to substitute the benefits of multilayer barrier films into a mono-layer alternative, the future is looking bright for flexible packaging and its design for a circular economy.



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