by Anne Marie Mohan, Senior Editor, Packaging World
Multilayer, mixed-material flexible film packaging is a sustainability conundrum. Lighter in weight, using less material, and resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than alternative packaging formats such as glass, aluminum, and rigid plastic, flexibles seem like the most eco-friendly packaging choice. But, unlike glass, aluminum, and rigid plastic, mixed-material flexible film* cannot be recovered at end of life.
For some sustainability diehards, the fact that the only place for multilayer flexibles at the end of their use is the landfill is a deal-breaker—despite all of their sustainability advantages. For the those companies that supply and use this material, however, understanding the challenges associated with flexible film recovery and moving toward feasible solutions have become a priority, especially as the use of flexible packaging grows.
According to a 2015 report from PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, “The unique benefits of flexible packaging have made it the second largest packaging segment in the U.S. [representing 19% of the total $164 billion packaging market]. The format has grown considerably in popularity over the last decade and has continued to take market share in the packaging industry.” It adds that while this growth may be starting to plateau, the market is expected to continue to expand at a healthy rate into the future. (Source: PMMI 2015 Flexible Packaging Market Assessment Report.)
Consulting firm Freedonia estimates in its 2015 study, “Converted Flexible Packaging,” that demand for mixed-material film packaging will rise 3.3% annually through 2019, to $20.7 billion, due to the cost and performance advantages of lightweight bags and pouches. In addition, it says that “converted flexible packaging’s source reduction, space savings, and lower production and transportation costs…will drive further conversions from rigid to flexible formats.”
Currently there are no systems in the U.S. to collect and recover multilayer flexible films. To put such systems in place will involve solving technical and commercial challenges at every stage of the process—collection, sorting, and end markets—with the development of each depending on the success of the others.
While it is true flexible films represent a large chunk of the packaging materials market, their percentage of landfill waste does not: multi-material laminates accounted for just 1.6% of the total municipal waste stream in 2012, according to the Flexible Packaging Assn. Even though this number has increased since then and will continue to grow as the market expands, there are other pressing reasons why the packaging industry is taking on the challenge of flexible film recovery.
Alan Blake, Executive Director of PAC Next, a part of Canadian association PAC, Packaging Consortium, that was founded to create a vision of “A World Without Packaging Waste,” says the group initially became interested in finding ways to recover flexible films due to Canada’s Extended Producer Responsibility laws. Under EPR requirements, all stakeholders pay a fee based on the quantity of packaging materials they put into the market. PAC NEXT’s Multi-Layer Laminated Films & Bags project is focused on initiating and completing a pilot to recycle post-consumer recycled multilayer laminated film from a Municipal Recycling Facility (MRF).
“Given EPR, there’s this pressure to see what can be done to avoid materials going to landfill and what can be done to find solutions,” Blake says. “People become a bit emotional when they start seeing increasing levels of materials going into the waste stream that are non-recyclable, such as multilayer, mixed-plastic laminates.”
Jeff Wooster, Global Sustainability Director of Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, which is involved in many initiatives around flexible film recovery, explains the growth in interest in flexible film recovery this way: “The development of the recycling infrastructure for any material follows the introduction of that material and its growth to a scale where it makes sense to invest in a recycling infrastructure.”
For example, he says, when aluminum cans and PET bottles were first introduced, they were not recycled. But as the markets for these materials grew, recycling followed. “With flexible packaging, because it’s more difficult to mechanically recycle and because the weight of each individual package is much lower than it is for other materials, there are some additional challenges that other materials don’t have to the same extent.”
Consumer pressure is definitely also a driver, he adds: “Consumers don’t like to see packaging going into the landfill, and neither do we.”
One of the projects Dow is involved with is Materials Recovery for the Future, an initiative of the Research Foundation for Health and Environmental Effects, established by the American Chemistry Council. The project has brought together brand owners, manufacturers, and packaging industry organizations interested in creating recovery solutions for flexible packaging. Its first goal is to study the movement of films and flexible plastic packaging at U.S. MRFs.
“Our motivation for this is to close the resource loop and make sure that our materials continue to deliver value for as long as they can,” Wooster says. “We know it’s of great interest to companies, NGOs, and well-informed consumers to try to recover the value of their materials instead of putting them into a landfill.”
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