Introduction to Flexible Packaging Recovery
October 16, 2023
Eagle Flexible Packaging is fully committed to providing sustainable packaging solutions for a wide range of food and non-food industries. Our compostable, recyclable packaging products, with PCR (Post Consumer Recycled content), from renewable sources, and premium traditional packaging materials are chosen to address and minimize their impact on the environment.
Flexible packaging – such as bags, films, and pouches – plays an important role in packaging sustainability. In general, flexible packaging uses less material per package than rigid packaging, and its lightweight nature means that transporting it is less carbon-intensive than heavier packaging types. Flexible packaging plays a critical role in preventing food waste, as it represents a high percentage of food packaging. Flexible pouches or packets can also enable refill models.
Despite its sustainability benefits, however, recovering flexible packaging at its end-of-life is a major challenge. Today most flexible packaging ends up in the very lowest tiers of the waste management hierarchy: it’s incinerated, landfilled, or leaked into the environment. More and better recovery of flexible packaging is key to closing the loop for this material.
What Does Circularity Mean for Flexible Packaging?
Circularity begins with design. Designing flexible packaging “with the end in mind” includes using non-hazardous base materials and additives, minimizing the number of unique materials in a package, and avoiding materials or components that could interfere with recycling (or composting). A package’s likelihood of successfully passing through local/typical collection and sortation infrastructure should also be considered in the design phase.
Aside from a few pilot programs, flexible packaging is not currently collected in curbside recycling in the United States. Collection is primarily available via store drop-off, a decentralized network of collection bins in grocery stores and other retail locations. Plastic bags and films are also accepted at some local recycling centers. Flexible packaging made of anything other than polyethylene (such as polypropylene or multi-material flexible packaging) is not accepted in the store drop-off system. Outstanding/ongoing needs in flexible packaging collection include increased consumer awareness of the store drop-off system, additional options and access points for collection, and collection mechanisms for flexible packaging that is not eligible for store drop-off.
Technology exists today to sort flexible packaging successfully. Aside from manual sorting, the two main approaches to flexible packaging sortation are 1) robotic sorting equipment paired with artificial intelligence, and 2) digital watermarking. Artificial intelligence uses pattern recognition based on package features such as shape and branding to identify which items should be accepted or rejected, whereas digital watermarking uses unique barcodes printed on packaging but invisible to the naked eye. While these technologies have each demonstrated their capabilities in pilot projects and individual material recovery facilities, there is not yet widespread investment in making this type of sorting equipment the norm.
Approaches to reprocessing flexible packaging vary by incoming material composition and intended end market. For instance, mechanically reprocessing polyethylene flexibles back into film requires a high degree of sorting and very low levels of additives or contaminants that would be detrimental to recycling. Durable products such as decking are often thought of as less demanding applications for recycled flexible packaging materials; however, additives or contaminants that would interfere with product longevity in an outdoor environment must be avoided. Reprocessing flexible packaging materials to food grade or virgin-like quality is most feasible with chemical recycling technologies. For example, purification technologies can remove additives and contaminants and separate the various components from multi-material packages, whereas conversion technologies can often process polyolefin mixtures, with varying degrees of tolerance for other materials.
End markets for material from recycled flexible packaging depend on material’s composition and quality. Markets can range from stretch wrap to construction products to pallets to trash bags to new food contact flexible packaging in some cases. Clean material with consistent, known composition has more available end markets than contaminated, mixed, or variable material.
Find more information visit the Sustainable Packaging Coalition https://sustainablepackaging.org/
RESOURCES & GUIDES
How2Recycle Store Drop-Off Label
Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) PE Film Design Guidance
Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) “Designing for a Circular Economy”
Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) Circular Economy Roadmaps
Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) “Key Actions for Tackling Flexible Packaging in a Circular Economy”
Article Author – Ruth Maust, GreenBlue
Article Editors – Lucy Pierce, GreenBlue, Kaleigh Reno, GreenBlue
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