Grappling with flexible film recycling

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

The Reflex project aims to raise the amount of recycled flexible packaging
The Reflex project aims to raise the amount of recycled flexible packaging

Related tags: Recycling

A project aiming to boost the volumes of packaging films recycled in the UK will encourage simpler (but not lower-performing) structures, help drive the development of barrier coatings and adhesives and seek to establish the use of machine-readable marks to distinguish between different material combinations.

The two-year Reflex project, which got underway late last year, brings together a consortium of suppliers (Amcor Flexibles and Dow Chemical), sorting equipment specialists such as Tomra and brand-owners Nestlé and Unilever, among others. Leading the project is Axion Consulting.

“This project aims to remove the barriers preventing flexible packaging being recycled,”​ Axion director Roger Morton said in a statement. The objective was to “create a circular economy in flexible packaging and divert it from landfill”.

Vast majority

The company pointed out that film accounts for around one third of the plastics packaging waste stream by weight, with bottles and non-bottle rigid packaging each contributing a further third. But, while around 58% of plastics bottles were recycled, it said, the vast majority of films were still going to landfill.

According to project engineer Richard McKinlay, many of the simpler types of film were already recyclable, and the project’s main targets were polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). “We are also focusing on how we can increase the yield from flexibles such as pouches” ​he said. “I believe that with flexible packaging you can achieve a substantial shelf-life by combining relatively simple base polymers with barrier layers such as ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH).”

In some cases, brand-owners liked the aesthetics of a material such as polyester, but did not require the technical performance, he said.

While EVOH can be compatible with recycling, said McKinlay, it had its drawbacks. “We’re looking at a variety of barrier coatings and barrier adhesives being developed by Dow Chemical, among others.”

Final result

Although much of the ink from recycled films was removed at the extrusion stage, enough remained to give the final product a “greeny-grey”​ colour, said McKinlay. As a result, black might have to be added to recyclate, but the project was also going to work with suppliers on “removable inks”.

Axion explained that a technology such as near infra-red (NIR) sorting could not detect non-recyclable sandwich layers inside a film, for example. Instead, the project partners were looking at “machine-readable marking”​ to provide essential information.

“The aim is to be able to produce usable pellets of recycled PE and PP for which there will be market demand,”​ McKinlay said.

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