Most flexible plastic packaging can be recycled, but investment of £100 million in collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure would be needed to make it happen in the UK.
“The big problem is the lack of adequate facilities designed to process these largely-recyclable materials,” says Richard McKinlay, Axion’s Head of Circular Economy. “If we are to increase the UK’s stalling recycling rate and hit future targets, the recycling of flexible packaging offers potential economic and environmental benefits.”
Around 414,000 tonnes of plastic-based flexible packaging is placed on the UK market each year. Flexible packaging such as plastic bags, confectionery wrappers, frozen food bags and pouches makes up 27% of consumer plastic packaging in the UK; yet much of this ends up in landfills or energy recovery.
Latest figures show that UK recycling rates have stalled; after increasing from 12 to 40 per cent between 2001 and 2010, the UK’s recycling rate has only risen by 5.2 per cent to 45.2 per cent in 2016/17.
Findings from the two-year R&D REFLEX project, led by Axion, showed that 80% of post-consumer flexible packaging, which is either polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene (PE) could be recycled, including those with metallised and barrier coatings. Much of the remaining 20% which is non-recyclable could be re-designed using innovative barrier and sealing materials to maintain performance while improving recyclability.
The aim of the collaborative project, involving key players from across the entire supply chain, was to understand and address the technical barriers to mechanically recycling flexible packaging in the post-consumer waste stream, creating a circular economy for these materials.
“We showed this technical feasibility on a relatively small scale with REFLEX, but need to demonstrate it on a larger scale; ideally with a dedicated UK research project focussing on the collection of household packaging films. Moving forward, more funding of around £100 million is required if we wanted to enable PP and PE film recycling from kerbside collections,” continues Richard.
This investment, he suggests, could come from Extended Producer Responsibility schemes that would encourage brands to design for end of life in exchange for reduced compliance fees, and so improve the ‘recyclability’ of their packaging.
Creating end markets for the recycled polymers is also important. While PE film is recycled, it tends to go back into film applications, which are sensitive to contaminants. Recycled PP can go back into injection-moulded products, such as paint pots and trays, extruded piping and outdoor furniture.
Richard concludes: “Uncertainty still reigns over what is recyclable when it comes to flexible packaging. Extensive testing and research we did through the REFLEX project delivered really valuable knowledge on processing these waste materials. We know that flexible packaging that has been designed for end of life can be recycled, so we need the facilities in place to do it.
“Now is the time to act on this data with investment in the infrastructure and ongoing subsidies to support and increase the recycling rates for these materials. If we’re going to achieve higher recycling rates, then we need to do it. At what point does it stop becoming a choice?”