Flexible Packaging and its Recycling Problems

In three articles I will describe the flexible packaging market in relation to recycling. Up till this moment there is essentially nowhere in the world a proper system or technology available for the recycling of post-consumer multi-layer flexible packaging. In this first article I will describe in general terms the market position of flexible packaging and the recycling problems this packaging format faces. In the second article I will describe a recently developed effective recycling option for flexible packaging, while in the last article of this series I will outline a module for selective collection of flexible packaging.

Flexible Packaging
Changing lifestyles and the consequent dependence of consumers on processed, packaged and pre-cooked food is increasing the sales of flexible packaging. Rigid packaging in all its formats (bottles, cans, tins, glass, plastic containers) is visibly giving way to flexible packaging, mainly stand-up pouches, due to its convenient format, light weight, superior barrier properties, prudent use of material resources and high-quality printability.

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Almost in every area in the world flexible packaging is the number 2 format used. The food and beverage market is flexible packaging’s largest end-user segment, although healthcare has become the fastest growing. But we see at this moment flexible packaging in almost every consumer goods section, even for paint and motor oil.

To underline the importance of the flexible packaging format, large companies like Dow Chemical viewing packaging in general as an essential factor to help reduce food waste, state that flexible packaging is the crucial key to every food waste reduction scheme.

The Scope of Flexible Packaging
Flexible packaging is widely used instead of rigid and semi-rigid packaging because of its flexible characteristics like low weight, durability, cost effectiveness, attractiveness and its easiness to be shaped. Flexible packaging materials are generally produced by lamination and co-extrusion processes. To produce flexible packaging the basic raw materials are polyester, polyfilm, metallic film, BOPP, paper, adhesive etc.

Stand-up Pouch of Nestlé Russia with paperboard/aluminium/plastic

Stand-up Pouch of Nestlé Russia with paperboard/aluminium/plastic

Made from PET and PE, the flexible pouch, as a mono-layer, is fully and easily recyclable. However, the reality is that Consumer Goods Companies (CGCs) face the challenge to create a flexible package that provides enough protection from oxygen, light, air and any other ingress to protect the food ab initio, and then to provide the kind of shelf life that consumers, retailers and suppliers require.

The market today requires a shelf life of    approximately a year for food products, and this requires the use of what are known as “high-barrier materials” consisting of multi-layer compositions to protect the food from contaminants. These multi-layer compositions of flexible pouches for food products are typically made of aluminium foil sandwiched between two or more plastic layers, which are laminated or glued together by means of adhesives.

Multi-layer compositions
Though it sounds ounterintuitive, the addition of layers into a flexible packaging structure can actually lead to improvements in economics and functionality.

Stand-up pouch for motor-oil

Stand-up pouch for motor-oil

Were three- and five-layer film compositions very common some time ago, more and more converters are moving to seven- and nine-layer co-extrusion lines that provide more flexibility for desired functionality, thickness, and cost without over-engineering the structure. One technique is to use less-expensive resins as bulking layers. Another is to split the barrier layer into two thinner layers, with one serving as a “backup” in case a pinhole breaches the other. This approach also multiplies the number of material interfaces a permeate must cross, further reducing permeation rates. Several technologies for splitting barrier materials into many layers are being introduced, with data showing more than linear improvements in barrier properties.

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Multiple-layer packaging is in general not recyclable, consequently not selectively collected and as such it ends up in the mainstream of municipal household waste, officially called municipal solid waste stream (MSW) to be dumped into a landfill. Plastic-metal packaging and plastic-paper-metal packaging make it practically impossible to recycle the packaging, due to the different raw material components included in that package.

When we talk about recycling as in the above paragraphs, we talk about properly recovering the several components of a multi-layer to convert them individually into new recyclate resin, which can be used in combination with virgin resin in blow-moulding and similar plastic converting processes. This process is often, although not quite correctly, called a “cradle-to-cradle” recycling.
Due to the sheer number of compositions in plastic laminates used for flexible pouches this recycling process is (almost) impossible to implement, too complicated and too risky in terms of investments.

Stand-up pouch for paint

Stand-up pouch for paint

Note 1: In principle it is not the technology which makes it impossible to recycle flexible packaging, but the selection process. In other words every single flexible packaging component (i.e. layer) has to be analysed and categorized, separated and recycled individually to recover a maximum of every component to further convert into recyclate resin.

Note 2: No professional flexible packaging recycler will touch and accept post-consumer material, due to the fact that some 80% of the flexibles are food contaminated and as such unsuitable to go into their existing recycling stream as it will contaminate the final recyclate. This contamination makes the recyclate unacceptable for first-grade applications.

130731-Naturespouch W320 100dpiNote 3: Even Nestlé notes that there is as yet no facility in the world which can recycle flexible laminate. However Nestlé and Kraft are backing a research project in the UK involving the development of a technology that will allow the recovery of aluminium from flexible laminates. Note here the emphasis is upon aluminium. In the newly developed research project the plastic element in flexible pouches is evaporating in an oxygen-free chamber and used as energy source. This process is contradictory to the term “recycling”. Creating an energy source is a “cradle-to-crematorium” process. It is an end-of-life process in which you just blow away the valuable material resource to create some energy, incorrectly called renewable. It isn’t renewable of course when you incinerate the plastic components and use the energy. You end up with nothing more in your hands. It is gone forever, in other words a waste of valuable material. (Read my article: “Recycling Packaging Material with an Aluminium Component”)

Recycling and the Consumer Goods Companies
130351-ADD-FARM-Dae-Ryung W320 100dpiIf you take a look into the way packaging recycling has been evolved, you only see professional recyclers working with packaging formats which are fairly standardized.
Bottles (PET and glass), beverage cans and tins (aluminium or steel), paperboard boxes, and some plastic bags (PE or PET) are all easily recycled because the materials used to make the package are easily separated.

This recycling activity is able to create a high-value material that can usually be re-used in the same application from where it is originated.

When it comes to flexibles, the consumer goods industry has done a good job of maximizing value and performance by creating complicated structures that render themselves non-recyclable.  Adhesives, mixed materials, and coating each create complications that make it extremely difficult to classify, separate, and recycle flexible materials.

130800-Ella's W540 100dpi

As the second-largest packaging format in the USA, flexible packaging and its disposal are an important part of any discussion about eco-friendly packaging, and that includes recycling.
The increasing consumer interest in sustainable packaging increases, in fact, the demand for flexible packaging, as it weighs less than many other types of rigid packaging, including metal, rigid PET and glass containers. By using lightweight packaging, e.g., flexible pouches, companies can reduce the amount of fuel used and greenhouse gases emitted during transportation.

With this in mind, companies claim the packaging as “recyclable” and “environmentally friendly”, stating that both its reduction of waste and of resources used in production is its primary benefits.  Citing statistics that show 77% of PET water bottles in the USA (22 billion) end up in landfills annually the companies say their flexible packaging is better and because of its shape ,if landfilled, it would occupy 96% less space compared to the traditional PET bottle.

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Fresh produce packed in flexibles

But whatever they claim, they are still facing the reality in recycling flexibles. PET-bottle, their premier comparison target, can and is (easily) recycled. Flexibles aren’t.
But something has to be done. Extended Producer Responsibility Laws are lurking around the corner.
EPR started some 20 years ago as a solution to landfill problems in Europe. Now more than 30 countries have some type of EPR packaging law in place. EPR programs shift the costs and responsibilities to the marketplace. EPR makes sure that everyone involved in the life cycle of the product shares in the responsibility for the product’s life cycle impact.
Extended producer responsibility might be as many as five to ten years from becoming a reality in the United States, China, Russia and other countries, it inevitably will occur. Besides consumer convenience, “waste-control” is the most important parameter for the future of packaging.

Marketers of Flexible Packaging
The largest marketer of juice pouches is Kraft Foods, via Capri Sun. Kraft does an excess of 6 billion flexible packages each year. It is not a recyclable package and the company doesn’t claim it as such. Kraft has tried to reclaim a portion of these for post-consumer use, but has only retrieved a tiny portion so far.

130800-juiceboxbag W540 100dpiThe reclosable, multi-layer structure (PET/foil/OPA/PP) stand-up retort pouch for Sprout Organic Baby Food won Gold for Environmental & Sustainability Achievement, but although delivering several user advantages, the pouch is not recyclable.
130800-Sprout Organic Baby Food W540 100dpi

Sprout has thought to have found a solution for the recycling problem. As the multi-material laminated pouches can’t be recycled, they are being up-cycled to keep them out of the landfill. Sprout has partnered with TerraCycle (www.terracycle.net) to collect used pouches and turn them into other consumer products, like tote bags. I have no data about the results, but in general it can be said that people don’t take the action to pack and mail empty pouches. The TerraCycle way of recycling is marginal in terms of volume. Furthermore the action is very limited. TerraCycle is able to re- or upcycle because they only accept the Sprout pouches, which layer composition they know.

130800-Capri_Sun_Orange_Juice_Drink_330ml W320 100dpiIn the context of this article the claim made by Ron Romanik in his article “Eleven trends shaping flexible packaging”, written in Packworld can be seen as idiotic. I quote a part:
“Waste-to-Energy, or WTE, is becoming a more viable end-of-life option for flexible packaging materials …., increasing the likelihood that U.S. companies will support efforts to turn waste into electricity, synthetic gas, fuels, and recycled materials. This, in turn, may feed into larger goals such as compliance with corporate social responsibility initiatives”.
This last claim of course is ridiculous. Since when adds burning valuable not-renewable material to the compliance of social responsibility, corporate or not. It isn’t social responsibility, but a shameful activity.

Fortunately there are “responsible” Consumer Goods Companies desperately looking for solutions in regard to proper recycling, but they haven’t yet one created.
The recycling set-up related in my second article is a viable answer to this over-all problem.
to be continued

17 responses to “Flexible Packaging and its Recycling Problems

  1. Very good article, I searched for the other 2 articles mentioned but didn’t find them. What about blisterpacks?

  2. Pingback: Greenvestment Center » Finding Treasure in Trash·

  3. Pingback: Finding Treasure in Trash | First Affirmative Leadership Blog·

  4. I appreciate this article, as I am often perplexed by how there is such a demand for flexible packaging, but I consider it more wasteful than non-flexible packaging. It produces more waste, and introduces more dangerous chemicals found in some packaging into consumers homes, and bodies. It may save food waste, but at what cost? Thank you for posting, and inciting thought and conversation.

    • Mary, I don’t see your point arguing that flexibles are more wasteful than rigid. Where does this come from? Can you detail that for me. To help please read the articles I wrote about flexibles, particularly the stand-up pouches. Flexibles have nothing dominant to do with food waste as all packaging takes care of that item, particularly food tins (read my article about it). You are absolutely wrong in every aspect. Please enlighten me.

  5. Pingback: Can I Recycle That: Multi-layer packaging | Zero Waste Tulsa·

  6. Have you ever thought of doing a piece on industrial flexible packaging? There’s more to them than the eye may see, e.g branding, uses, industries, importance etc.

    If you’d like to collaborate on a piece, please get in touch!

  7. Pingback: Can I recycle baby food pouches? | Grist·

  8. Have approx 22Tpons of Alluminiuim Retport pouches. Hate the idea of sending it to landfill, Any idea of a company who may be interested to purchase same to recucle

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