Major brands seek to improve recyclability of flexible packaging

Several ‘high-profile global brands’, including Nestlé UK and Unilever, are to begin working with the resource industry in a new project to improve the recyclability of flexible packaging.

Utilising £917,000 of funding from the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK (formerly known as the Technology Strategy Board), the two-year collaborative research and development (R&D) project REFLEX is being led by resource recovery consultants Axion Consulting (part of the Axion Group). It aims to create a circular economy for flexible packaging (such as sweet and chocolate wrappers, plastic bags, and detergent pouches) by improving its recyclability and design.

flexible packaging targeted in recycling project
Examples of flexible packaging targeted under the REFLEX project

The project will involve the whole supply chain, from polymer production and packaging manufacture to waste management and recycling, to work to reduce the amount of flexible packaging sent to landfill (currently around 556,000 tonnes a year).

As such, Nestlé UK Ltd and Unilever Central Resources Limited will now work with Dow Chemical Company Limited, Amcor Packaging UK Limited, Tomra Sorting Limited, The Interflex Group Europe Limited, SITA Holdings UK Limited, and Axion to establish ‘industry-wide guidelines for recyclable packaging’, and work to discover how innovations such as new inks, barrier polymers, packaging designs and automated sorting techniques can improve film recycling.

“Creating a circular economy in flexible packaging”

Axion Director Roger Morton explained: “Flexible plastic packaging represents a huge challenge to current recycling routes, because seemingly ‘simple’ packages, such as a biscuit wrapper, may incorporate several functional layers to deliver heat-sealable, oxygen barrier, metalised, printed and varnished packaging with high tear strength, good puncture resistance and minimum cost.

“The complexity of these multi-layer films makes them virtually impossible to recycle by current methods because of the mix of polymer types and inks used.”

As such, Morton stated that the project will work to find “innovative recyclable and flexible package designs, where all the materials can be processed together” to remove the barriers preventing flexible packaging being recycled, “thus enabling recyclers such as Axion and SITA to change the supply chain, create a circular economy in flexible packaging and divert it from landfill”.

Research has already started into how flexible packaging can be collected, sorted and then reprocessed into high-quality recycled plastic pellet suitable for use in the manufacture of a wide range of products. Each step of the process will be trialled during the project to demonstrate its viability to the supply chain.

Axion anticipates that the market will follow a similar model to that of plastic bottle recycling and take 10 years to mature to a point at which more than 50 per cent of flexible packaging is diverted from the waste stream.

Fund for keeping resources in use for longer

In related news, Innovate UK has also announced that it will open up a new fund for businesses to explore commercial models for ‘a circular economy of goods in which resources are kept in productive use for longer’.

Up to £800,000 will be made available for projects that involve a partnership of businesses looking into the feasibility of ‘new ways of working’ that retain value in durable goods through reuse, remanufacture or lease/maintenance. As such, successful projects will also include customer-facing business that can enable return of products.

The amount of funding received will vary according to the type of organisation and type of research being undertaken. However, the government-funded body says that it expects projects to last six months and to range in size from total costs of £25,000 to £50,000. Universities, research organisations, and social enterprises are eligible as partners, but their portion of the total project costs will be capped at 30 per cent. 

Applicants will be expected to design a pilot to demonstrate how the model could become part of normal business, and ‘clearly describe’ where revenue generation and growth could occur in the UK as a result of the innovation and its exploitation. The benefits of the new approach should also be quantified as far as possible, and any assumptions regarding market size and environmental impacts described and justified. 

It is expected that a ‘small number’ of these pilot projects will be supported further in a follow-up funding programme.

Innovate UK said: “A strong case has been made for a more circular use of resources by business. McKinsey calculates substantial adoption of circular business models could lead to a saving of as much as $520-630 billion [£331-401 billion] a year in raw material. A build-up of ‘circular' supply chains that increase the rate of recycling, reuse and remanufacture could generate more than $1 trillion [£637 billion] a year for the global economy by 2025. Powerful examples exist, not least in Japan where the reuse and recycling economy was worth £163 billion in 2007 (7.6 per cent of GDP) and employed 650,000 people.

“Moving from a linear business model to a circular one requires changing multiple business models to enable the loop of products and components. This implies the development of (new) value networks – a network of businesses or other enterprises that generate economic value through dynamic exchange of resources or services.”

The competition will be open for applications between 2 March and 15 April 2015 (but the deadline for registration is 8 April 2015).

A briefing day for potential applicants will be held at the Resource Event in London on 3 March, and a webinar detailing the competition scope and application process will be broadcast on 9 March.

Find out more about the REFLEX project or Innovate UK’s Circular economy: business models fund.

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