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Making laminate packaging recycling a reality

Dr Carlos Ludlow-Palafox, Enval’s director and chief technical officer on how engaging further up the supply chain took the business from concept to commercialisation

As the impact of our vast consumption of packaging has become increasingly clear, the last few decades have seen a great deal of activity aimed at developing economically and ecologically viable recycling methods for these often challenging materials. Brand owners face considerable public and regulatory pressure to ensure that the packaging they deliver to consumers is environmentally responsible.

Enval was formed in recognition of the opportunity inherent in delivering technology solutions to deal with more difficult to recycle materials, particular lighter materials and food packaging. The company was created as a spin-out of Cambridge University, capitalising on many years of academic research and an understanding that the rigorous academic approach can be a powerful tool when delivering processes that need to compete in a commercial world.

One type of material that has recently become a major concern is aluminium/plastic laminate, which is commonly used as packaging for consumer goods such as juices, toothpaste, cosmetics and petfood. Laminate packaging has been widely adopted by Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies to improve the ratio of product to pack weight, reduce the transport costs and environmental impact attributable to packaging, and ultimately reduce the weight of material that has to be disposed of after use. Unfortunately, to date there has been no viable technology for recycling aluminium when it is attached to another material, and as a consequence these laminates have generally been disposed of in landfill or by incineration.

Enval’s primary focus is on the development and commercialisation of our patented process to recycle these materials and retrieve the valuable resources contained within them. Our proprietary process is based on a technology known as Microwave Induced Pyrolysis. This is a pyrolytic process in which the energy to heat up the material is provided by microwave energy. In the case of laminates, the Enval process treats the waste in such a way that the maximum value can be extracted out of the disposed materials: the plastic present in the laminate degrades to form other useful products (pyrolysis oils) that can be used either as fuel to generate electricity or as feedstock for speciality chemicals. The fragile aluminium foil remains undamaged after processing and is extracted clean and ready to reintroduce into the aluminium supply chain. The process has the potential to treat most flexible aluminium/plastic laminate packaging systems, whether it is post-consumer waste or industrial waste from the packaging production and filling processes.

Our philosophy has always been that those companies pioneering novel waste and recycling technologies must focus on developing processes that are financially lucrative, while delivering tangible and demonstrable environmental benefits. Building on this, we developed a process capable of delivering a payback time in line with industry expectations. We were also able to demonstrate, using strict life-cycle analysis calculations, that the aluminium obtained via the Enval process has a carbon footprint 72% lower than primary aluminium.

Despite these extremely positive attributes, when we started approaching waste handlers to work with them toward commercialising the process, the answer was unequivocal; the waste handling and processing industry is conservative by nature, and it was unlikely that any company would adopt the technology until a working plant was available. Even then, despite our growing reputation, as a small organisation it was highly unlikely that we would be able to persuade the waste handlers and processors to adopt our technology in the short term.

We decided that a good method of gaining momentum was to involve companies at other stages of the supply chain who would be keenly interested in solutions that can both reduce costs and respond to public pressure to ensure that their products are environmentally responsible. As a result, and as the business developed, we built an innovative business model with these FMCG companies at the centre. In this way, we created the Enval Consortium, a non-competitive consortium comprising organisations drawn from the flexible packaging supply chain that have a vested interest in seeing the Enval process succeed and become widely used in the waste handling industry.

Three large multinationals, Kraft Foods, Nestle and Mondelez International, signed up and provided the financing that enabled us to build our first commercial plant, showcasing the capabilities of the technology to the waste handling industry. This plant is now being commissioned, and will demonstrate the commercial and environmental viability of recycling the packaging systems used by the Consortium members while also raising public and industry awareness of the efficacy of our process. Ultimately, the Enval technology will allow all FMCG companies using laminated packaging, not only the Consortium members, to carry on business as usual without having to worry about changing entire packaging systems due to an inability to recycle the materials. By joining the Enval Consortium our members simply showed that they are ahead of their competitors on the sustainability agenda and are willing to lead the way rather than waiting for someone else to do something.

This model of collaboration and co-financing has proved highly successful and we hope to use it as a means of establishing other development projects aimed at tackling other materials that are currently unrecyclable. We believe that the presence of these new players in the market, who are willing to finance and develop innovative technology, may well have positive implications for the way the waste sector operates as a whole. Enabling entire supply chains, and even competitors, to work towards a common goal of improving the sustainability of materials can only result in win-win scenarios for all.

Whatever changes are ahead, the key to success will always lie in responding to commercial drivers; game-changing technologies must first and foremost be profitable. The focus must be on developing unique recycling processes that provide financially lucrative and environmentally beneficial alternatives to landfilling.

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