Nestlé UK and Unilever are among organizations coming together on a new project aiming to improve the recyclability of flexible packaging products, in the hope of pushing the resource industry closer towards a circular economic approach.
The two-year research and development (R&D) program, REFLEX, is being headed by resource industry consultants Axion Consulting. With £917,000 funding from Innovate UK (previously known as the Technology Strategy Board), the project aims to improve the design and recyclability of flexible packaging products such as sweet wrappers, plastic bags and detergent pouches.
REFLEX will investigate potential improvements throughout the packaging supply chain, from polymer generation and production through to waste management and recycling, to significantly reduce the amount sent to landfill - which currently stands at around 556,000 tons every year.
Nestlé UK Ltd and Unilever Central Resources Limited say they hope to drive new innovations in inking, polymer use, design and automated sorting techniques for improvements in film recycling, and to create ‘industry-wide guidelines for recyclable packaging.’ The brands will work with other companies including Dow Chemical Company Limited, Amcor Packaging UK Limited, Tomra Sorting Limited, The Interflex Group Europe Limited, SITA Holdings UK Limited and Axion on the REFLEX project.
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“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,” explained Axion director Roger Morton. “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.”
Morton said he hopes that the R&D project will find new ways of designing and recycling flexible packaging, such that all the materials can be processed together. This would allow Axion and SITA to divert their packaging from landfill and into a more circular reuse model.
Research has already begun on ways to collect, sort and reprocess packaging into high-quality plastic pellet form, which can be used in the manufacture of a range of secondary products. Each step of the process will be trialled over the two years to test its viability to the supply chain.
Axion predicts that the market will take 10 years to mature into a new recycling model - in a trend similar to that of plastic bottle recycling - at which point more than 50 percent of flexible packaging will be diverted from landfill.
Earlier this year, Nestlé UK & Ireland were involved in a similar project (along with Coca-Cola Enterprises and Tesco) funded by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to develop viable approaches for collecting flexible packaging materials containing aluminum to improve the recycling and remanufacture of the material.
In related news, Innovate UK has launched a new funding program for businesses to develop viable models to provide “a circular economy of goods in which resources are kept in productive use for longer.”
To promote collaboration between businesses to test the plausibility of new models that maintain the worth of goods through maintenance, remanufacture and reuse, Innovate UK has made up to £800,000 available for business applicants. Despite the precise amount of funding varying by type of organization and research, the body expects projects to last approximately six months and range in size from £25,000 to £50,000.
Successful applicants are expected to design a pilot program to show how their model could be incorporated into normal business operations, and what growth or revenue could be generated in the UK from its implementation. It’s expected that a “small number” of these pilot projects will be taken further in a follow-up funding program.