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Call to arms for flexible packaging recycling

The collection, sorting and recycling of post-consumer flexible plastic packaging would be viable in the UK with the right infrastructure and £100m of capital investment, according to a report.

A regime to justify the construction of two purpose-built facilities would need a further 75 councils to start kerbside collections and 50% participation from householders.

The two-year Reflex project, funded by the agency Innovate UK, was supported by high-profile brands such as Nestle and Unilever. It covered the entire supply chain from polymer production and packaging manufacture to waste management and recycling.

Flexible packaging such as plastic bags, confectionery wrappers, frozen food bags and pouches makes up 27% of consumer plastic packaging in the UK, and much of this ends up in landfill or energy recovery.

Challenges include low yields due to multi-layer barrier materials, difficulties in sorting it from bulk waste and high ink loadings that affect the colour of the recycled product.

Samples of current packaging were provided by the brand owners and converters in the consortium, and part of the research involved redesigning them to improve recyclability at end of life without increasing costs.

Trials were undertaken at both small-scale and production scale to manufacture new packaging structures, including moving to an all-polyethylene or all-polyolefin structure and the replacement of non-polyolefin polymers in the packaging structure.

Analysis in the report indicates a viable business case that would require:

  • local authorities adopting kerbside collection of flexible packaging (estimated to need a further 75 local authorities to start collections)
  • at least 50% participation rate from the householder in each authority with the required communication activities
  • integrating recyclability into the packaging design process where it makes technical and economic sense, supported by specific guidelines
  • sorting and processing facilities to make the necessary investments in new equipment required to extract flexible packaging from feedstock streams
  • providinge certainty in feedback and offtake markets to enable recycling plants to be financed and constructed
  • understanding the lifecycle of the proposed value chain
  • to lobby for an appropriate policy infrastructure to be in place

Others taking part in the research were Amcor, Dow Chemical Company, Interflex Group, Suez, Tomra and Axion Consulting.

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