Flexible Packaging Recovery Collaborative
This Collaborative’s mission is to provide resources for companies that want to learn more about multi-material and mono-material flexible packaging recovery and define key actions that can be taken to increase flexible packaging recovery, keep it out of the environment, and enable it to be part of the circular economy.
To that end, this group has been working to evaluate recovery options for multi-material flexible packaging, and we have now expanded the scope to include all flexible packaging. By collecting and highlighting global efforts to advance recovery options for all flexible packaging, it is our aim to advance the collective understanding and share best practices toward the goal of creating sustainable solutions for flexible packaging end-of-life management.
Are you a current SPC member who wants to join the Collaborative?
Overview of Multi-Material Flexible Packaging (MMFP)
All flexible packaging has an important role to play in packaging sustainability. Flexible packaging in general allows for less use of materials than rigid packaging and enables the sustainable use of materials from an efficiency perspective, which has important implications for carbon emissions from packaging. Flexible packaging also plays a central role in preventing food waste, as it represents a high percentage of food packaging (50% of food packaging is flexible according to CEFLEX). However, the system of today does not support recovery for flexible packaging at end-of-life, with MMFP in particular lacking recovery options. This negatively impacts the sustainability story of MMFP.
Flexible plastic packaging continues to grow as a material of demand. Between 2010 and 2014 global demand for flexible packaging grew 56 percent. In the U.S., flexible packaging is the fastest growing and second largest segment within the packaging industry. For this reason it is critical to explore new solutions to better recover this packaging category.
While we refer to flexible packaging as whole, the types of resins, polymers and formats used to create flexible packaging varies widely. This complexity, created by using one or more types of polymers to create flexible packaging, challenges the efficient collection, separation, recycling and resale of this material. While new innovations and systems have been created to address single polymer materials, limited options for the end-of-life management of multi-materials flexible film packaging continues to challenge these types of packages.
Mono- vs Multi-Material Flexible Packaging
Mono-material flexible packaging uses one polymer only — most often polyethylene. Commonly found in plastic bags, produce bags and self-sealed food storage bags, these can currently be collected and recycled through the U.S. at store-drop-off center, or in limited municipal curbside collection programs.
Multi-material flexible packaging is composed of two or more materials joined together with adhesive or wax. By layering different materials together manufacturers can create a package with unique barrier and mechanical properties. Additionally, multi-material films are typically thinner and lighter than single (mono) material equivalents. This helps reduce demand for resources required to produce and transport packaging–including reduced greenhouse gases. Because of these advantages, in addition to cost savings, when compared to rigid plastics multi-material flexible packaging, specifically food pouches, is anticipated to be one of the fastest growing packaging formats over the next few years. However, their nature as lightweight and multi-material structures is exactly what complicates their ability for recovery, and in particular, their suitability for mechanical recycling.
Current compositions of multi-material flexible packaging vary from three layers up to nine. Because there is no standard composition, and different resins are utilized across the various layers, there is no existing program anywhere across the globe to provide for the public recovery of these materials. With an estimated 40 billion packages produced from multi-material films annually in the U.S., finding solutions to collect, sort and recover these materials is becoming of increasing interest to packaging and waste communities, as well as, consumers across the globe.
Mapping Challenges for MMFP Across the Recovery System
Lack of a standard design for multi material films, which have a wide variety of substrates and combinations of layers, creates a challenge for consistent collection, sortation, reprocessing, and end markets.
- MMFP is not accepted in standard store drop-off collection for PE flexible packaging and films
- Much MMFP is used for food, and so risk of food contamination makes acceptance into collection systems challenging.
- There are currently some specific collection systems such as Terracycle for MMFP but they are ad hoc and not at scale.
- Curbside collection of flexible packaging in general is limited to a few small communities and pilots in North America for MMFP.
- Many different designs and material combinations make it impossible to identify resin composition which is needed for sortation.
- Material ends up flowing to the paper stream in single stream MRFs because of its two dimensional format and light weight, contaminating that stream.
- Films can be contaminated by food and drink, which interferes with processing.
- Diverse designs on the market means there is much uncertainty in the contents and properties of a mixed flexible bale, which can make optimizing processing equipment very challenging and produce low quality outputs.
- Some limited markets are currently available through mechanical recycling into construction products or lumber, but these often depend on special collection systems and are limited to certain formats (i.e. not mixed waste), or can only tolerate a small percentage of MMFP, and so they are not economically viable at scale for all MMFP.
- Feedstock recycling technologies offer some promise for broadening end markets. However many of these technologies are not yet at scale and also require consistent volumes and quantities, which are difficult to achieve from post-consumer collection.
- The use of MMFP in downcycling applications, such as for use in energy generation, is the most common end-use besides landfill.
Exploring initiatives to increase MMFP recovery
Quite often, when any new material is introduced into the marketplace, recovery options are a step behind. The cycle of innovation requires that as needs arise and markets grow, investment into recovery solutions will advance. This dynamic relationship between demand, innovation and economics is what created our existing recycling system in the first place. When we examine the history of material recycling, a common pattern emerges, regardless of the material type. A new material is identified and developed for consumer use, collaboration occurs to identify solutions for recycling, investments are made to scale up technological solutions and end markets are identified or created. Once cost-effective processing solutions and viable end markets can be established, materials will gain acceptance into public collection systems.
While there is increasing support for innovation in material recovery systems, establishing the economics of end markets, collection and demand still remain beyond the direct control of those seeking recovery solutions for MMFP. Market economics always has, and will, continue to play a role in driving sustainable recovery systems.
In order to make MMFP widely recoverable, certain market challenges need to be resolved:
- Identify technologies and best practices to process these materials.
- Identify cost-effective collection systems and invest in consumer education for participation in collection to ensure adequate recovery rates.
- Gain regulatory approvals and legislative support (as needed).
- Develop end markets for mixed flexible plastic materials. This end market development can take time and may be influenced by global economics, regulatory, and manufacturer support.
Initiatives to find effective recovery solutions for MMFP have attempted to tackle some, or all, of these challenges. Some projects and pilots have identified solutions to specific challenges. Please see a list of relevant initiatives below.
The projects listed below are initiatives designed to answer questions around the potential recovery of hard-to-recycle plastics, including multi-material films.
Please note that none of these projects addresses multi-material films independently. In order to meet cost effective collection, sortation, or processing, projects typically included a variety of hard-to-recycle plastics.
The Energy Bag
The Hefty Energy Bag program, developed by the Dow Chemical Company, uses existing municipal waste management infrastructure to collect, sort, and direct traditionally non-recyclable plastics toward energy conversion.
Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF)
Materials Recovery for the Future is a multi-year research project designed to identify how currently unrecyclable flexible packaging could be separated at a material recycling facility (MRF) in a single stream recycling system. Additionally, the project seeks to identify the most cost-effective way to separate and create film bales for sale in order to help drive end market growth.
Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX)
CEFLEX explores the opportunities for multi-material flexible packaging across its lifecycle; particularly as it relates to being able to create a circular economy for material re-use. Data from REFLEX, the Flexible Aluminum Containing Laminate Collection Trisla and FIACE all feeds into this project in order to drive a solution applicable across Europe.
Closed Loop Partners
The Closed Loop Foundation funds research and development of technologies and business models focused on building the circular economy.
RED Group is a Melbourne, Australia based consulting and recycling organisation who has developed and implemented the REDcycle Program; a recovery initiative for post-consumer soft plastic. They work with retailers Coles, Woolworths and some of Australia’s most-loved brands to help consumers keep your plastic bags and soft plastic packaging out of landfill. The program accepts all flexible packaging through return to retail programs, including multi material flexible packaging.
Residents of British Columbia can recycle mixed Flexible Plastic Packaging at Recycle BC depots and London Drugs locations around the province. This includes collection of stand-up and zipper lock pouches, crinkly wrappers and bags, like coffee bags, or chip bags, flexible packaging with plastic seal, non-food protective wrap like bubble wrap or plastic envelopes, and net bags for produce. Collection for this Flexible Plastic Packaging is part of a research and development project to determine how we can best recycle this material. During this time, the majority of the material will be recovered and produced into engineered fuel, an engineered energy product that is a direct replacement for traditional non-renewable resources, such as coal.
Industry Working Groups
There are many current industry initiatives exploring viable solutions to increase the recovery options of multi-material packaging, including The American Chemistry Council: Plastics to Fuel & Petrochemistry Alliance (PTF), The Flexible Packaging Association’s Flexible Packaging Resource Recovery Task Group, and PACNEXT’s Multi-Material Film & Bags Committee.
Recovery Technologies Map
This map shows the wide range of established and emerging facilities in North America capable of recovering pre-consumer multi-material flexible packaging waste.The facilities listed on this map as emerging technologies have not yet been proven as viable candidates for multi-material film recovery in North America but rather may be in very early testing or pilot stage. Their inclusion on this map is not an endorsement by the SPC. Rather they are listed to help users of this map monitor progress and emerging options as innovation in this space advances. This map will be updated as new pilots and projects evolve.
This map is focused on pre-consumer multi-material flexible packaging waste because:
Pre-consumer multi-material flexible packaging is more easily processed than post-consumer. There are limited reprocessing technologies that can recover multi-material flexible packaging without having an understanding of the various materials within the overall blend. Pre-consumer material can be easily characterized since it has a known material makeup and is generally free of disruptive contaminants. In contrast post-consumer material is variable and unpredictable because there are so many different formats available in the marketplace. Currently, there are no identifiers within these packages to help material processors identify their chemical composition and thus assist with sorting and reprocessing. Additionally, post-consumer packaging is more likely to be contaminated with residual product;
Pre-consumer multi-material flexible packaging is widely collected for recovery, while post-consumer is not.
While there are no significant examples of processing capabilities in place today for post-consumer mixed multi material flexible packaging, the technologies included in this map represent potential technological interventions that could be extended to post-consumer streams.
Know of another facility that we should add? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of our findings from the Recovery Technologies Map project was that there are a lack of innovative recovery technologies in place today in North America for MMFP. It was for this reason we decided to launch an entrepreneur’s challenge to identify new, emerging technologies that hold promise for recovering MMFP. SPC partnered with the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners collaborated on the FlexPack Recovery Challenge, an open competition launched in October 2018 for entrepreneurs and startups to submit new ideas for reprocessing technologies capable of recovering multi-material flexible packaging waste.
Startups and entrepreneurs from all over the world entered the Challenge with a wide variety of recovery technology and business models. The finalists selected are representative of the geographical and technological scope of innovators working to solve the problem of recovery options for multi material flexible packaging, including mechanical recycling, delamination and chemical conversion technologies. Working with academic and industry advisors, Closed Loop Partners and the SPC selected the following companies as finalists:
Developing solutions to recover multi-material flexible packaging (MMFP) will require advancement across each element of the recovery system. Several pathways towards beneficial recovery exist, and key lessons and next steps have emerged to draw the roadmap and guide progress.
Developing a sustainable solution to recover multi-material films will require solutions across all phases of the recovery system. After reviewing findings across the various relevant initiatives and industry working groups, as well as learnings gained in our own projects, some key lessons and next steps have emerged which offer a promising roadmap towards sustainable recycling solutions for multi-material flexible packaging.
Design for Recovery Insights
Some MMFP can be redesigned to become compatible with the existing film recycling system. Many MMFP applications can be redesigned to one of a mono-material format in order to become compatible with the established recycling streams, which include robust film recycling systems for mono-material PE films in the U.S. and systems for mono-material PE and PP films in many parts of Europe. Redesigning to a mono-material format is not always feasible due to barrier properties, strength requirements, or other performance considerations, but emerging innovations are expanding the opportunities to simplify multi-material structures.
If it is not possible to redesign to a mono-material format, the use of compatibilizers should be considered. Compatibilizers are special additives that enable plastic reclaimers to reprocess multi-material structures, and are currently available for PE-based structures that include barrier layers like EVOH and nylon (I.e. Dow’s RETAIN ™ )Further R&D is underway to commercialize new compatibilizers for other polymer blends such as polypropylene-based MMFP.
If curbside collection of MMFP is enabled, designing for sortation at material recovery facilities (MRFs) should be considered. The Material Recovery for the Future initiative has undertaken pilot projects with results that show progress towards successful sortation at MRFs, with a few observations noted around the effects of package design on optical or near infrared (NIR) sortation:
High glossy surfaces should be avoided as these are too difficult for optical sorters to recognize.
Black or very dark objects may not provide enough light for optical sorters to recognize.
Compostable MMFP is an emerging opportunity. Innovations are enabling more packaging to be designed for compostability, including MMFP. Compostable MMFP must pass requirements set out in EN 13432 or ATSM D6400. Films designated to be compostable according to these requirements can be labelled by either the European OK Compost label, the Biodegradable Products Institute(BPI) label, or the SPC’s How2Compost label. The availability of composting facilities and the acceptance of compostable packaging in those facilities is limited, though initiatives are underway to expand access to composting for packaging
Curbside collection options as well as specialized collection systems are limited for MMFP. However there are pilot systems that show promise to be scaled. The Hefty Energy Bag project offers promise in aggregating the collection of hard-to-recycle plastics, and suggests that bagged plastics can be collected curbside, while the Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) report suggests that a loose automated collection process, similar to current single stream collection may have more potential to be scalable and cost effective than bagged films – particularly with large-scale MRFs.
As we have seen with other recycling programs, engaging consumer participation is key to ensuring participation and quality. An increasing number of studies on recycling behavior for plastics and other materials, reinforces the need to provide clear and easy-to-understand messaging through multiple channels. Additionally, the use of images is highly recommended.
Collection and acceptance of compostable films still remains limited in most municipalities as a result of limited permitted facilities. Therefore, any design of compostable multi-layer films should be accompanied by investments in collection. Investment is also needed in general for collection of organics, which is a potential pathway for future collection of compostable packaging.
Two-dimensional flexible plastic packaging has been known to flow with two-dimensional paper, clogging screens and contaminating paper bales at MRFs, Ejecting these materials from the paper stream is likely where the best solution for sortation may be found. Recent findings from the MRFF pilot project show promise - which added several optical sorters and a paper magnet to a MRF creating a mixed flexible plastics bale.
There are a variety of existing and emerging technologies which offer significant promise for sorting multi-material flexible packaging along the MRF sortation line. Recommendations for further testing are encouraged. Promising technologies include the use of:
Near infrared (NIR) optical sorters to detect multi-material films
Optical sorters to direct flexible plastics out of the paper stream
The use of innovations such as vacuum systems, ballistic separators, density-based air separators, robotic film grabbers, to help capture more film and clean paper bales
The use of a digital watermarks on packaging, which would be undetectable to the human eye, but could be read by optical sorters to better sort out more types of packaging
The use of AI based robotic sorting for flexibles and films
Although these technologies offer potential promise for sortation, the economics of end market sales will dictate their long-term adoption.
Processing and End Markets
Opportunities for reprocessing of multi-material flexible packaging are limited. Reprocessing in general refers to operations that aim to recover sorted plastics received from MRFs via mechanical processes (i.e. grinding, washing, separating, drying, re-granulating and compounding) and production of recycled plastic flakes or pellets that can be reused to make new products. The technical capability does exist to reprocess polymers in polyolefin based multi-material flexible packaging, however there are also many limitations. Limitations are often caused by the different melting points of different polymers, which makes it challenging to get quality output from mixed polymers. It is generally considered important to know what the incoming resin composition is and keep it consistent and relatively clean so that equipment can be adjusted accordingly to get the best outputs based on the unique qualities of the incoming polymer mix..his makes it highly challenging to use multi-material flexible packaging collected at the curbside where much of this information is unknown and unpredictable.
Most existing processes can typically use only a small percentage of MMFP, due to this variability of input, so MMFP represents a small percentage of the composition of the product produced (see example end markets from mixed flexible packaging on page 26 of the MRFF report). New technologies like compatibilizers (described above) and molding innovations for processing plastics with different melting points are emerging that might address some of these limitations. .
New technologies are emerging that use chemical and water-based solvents to dissolve bonds between layers, separating them. These processes can be added onto existing mechanical recycling processes and can expand the markets to those of distinct polymers, rather than send the package to a mixed flexible plastics bale that could potentially be destined for less preferable forms of recovery like waste-to-energy. These technologies are very promising additions to the capabilities of mechanical recycling for MMFP, however have yet to be applied at scale. Often these technologies require pure streams of specific laminated packaging types, as different solvents work to separate different combinations of layers (i.e. PET/PET), and one solvent may not work for all varieties of MMFP in mixed plastics bales.
Reprocessing options for multi-material flexible packaging includes more than just mechanical recycling. For multi-material flexible packaging, so-called “Feedstock Recycling” technologies that reconstitute plastic films to more basic hydrocarbons is an opportunity area for multi material film recovery. Feedstock recycling is achieved by heating the plastic at high temperatures in a chamber that is either void of oxygen (pyrolysis) or uses oxygen and steam (gasification), with many variations of these processes being developed. These processes simulate virgin feedstocks for plastics (e.g. oil and gas), and from these hydrocarbon outputs , a variety of end products may be created that have virgin-like properties. These outputs include many of the chemicals, plastics, waxes and other products made from virgin fossil fuel feedstocks today. The output can also be used in fuel applications.
Exploration by the Multi-Material Flexibles Recovery Collaborative suggests that feedstock recycling may be one of the most viable options currently available for the end of life management of multi-material flexible packaging. Unlike other plastics like rigid PET or mono material PE, MMFP cannot be viably recycled mechanically. However, most of these recovery technologies are still in the pilot stage and the economics of the market are still emerging, with markets currently in favor of fuels instead of plastics outputs. As sortation and collection of significant volumes is still a challenge, the processing of multi-material flexible packaging only is unlikely to produce sufficient volume, additional plastics to supplement processing demand is likely. So instead, mixed plastic waste inputs are preferred.
“Chemical” or “Advanced” recycling processes cover a broad range of technologies.Polymer recycling maintains the polymer and can utilize chemical solvents as a complimentary add-on process in mechanical recycling to purify the polymer from inks, colors or additives. Monomer recycling breaks apart polymers into individual monomers through chemical depolymerization processes such as hydrolysis (which does not generally apply to mixed polyolefins). Feedstock Recycling technologies reconstitute plastics to more basic hydrocarbons which can be used to make a variety of outputs, including plastics, chemical intermediates and fuels, and represent the most suitable technology for chemical recycling of mixed polyolefin MMFP.
The term Feedstock Recovery is also sometimes used to broadly cover all of these outputs of these technologies (both plastics, chemicals and fuels). The process can be called Feedstock Recycling when its outputs are put towards non-fuel use, per ISO definitions which state “Material Recycling is defined as reprocessing, by means of a manufacturing process, of a used packaging material into a product, a component incorporated into a product, or a secondary (recycled) raw material, excluding energy recovery and the use of the product as a fuel.” Polymer manufacturers can use this output as feedstock to produce new products. When outputs are put towards fuels or burned as energy, this is called “Energy Recovery.”
There is a hierarchy of preference for these technologies based on environmental footprint and end products. Feedstock-to-plastics are preferred to fuel outputs; however, there is still a place for non-plastic feedstocks in bridging the gap for flexible packaging recovery until plastics-to-plastics markets are scaled up.
Read more about examples of Feedstock recycling options for MMFP here.
Waste-to-energy (WTE) is the process of generating energy in the form of electricity and/or heat from the combustion of mixed waste, including multi-material flexible packaging left for disposal. While waste-to-energy is a commonly accepted practice in many European countries, it is less popular in North America. However, it still represents a significant end market for MMFP in North America. As seen in our Technology Recovery Map, incineration represents the largest end market for pre-consumer MMFP waste, for example, used by cement kilns who burn and use this for energy. Another popular end market was for use as engineered fuel pellets, which are also set to be burned for energy/fuel.
Currently, there are no large scale operations available to create end products from multi-material flexible packaging. While some pilots offer promise, further research estimating and understanding end markets for multi-material packaging would help develop interest and funding for end market development. Materials Recovery for the Future has started this process but more research is needed. One reason much of the current end markets are represented by fuel or energy is due to a lack of robust, alternative end markets.
These findings suggest there is a future for the recovery of multi-material flexible packaging through mechanical and feedstock recycling, and also compost. However, significantly more investment, research and innovation is required for any of these options to scale. Long term viability of these different recovery options will be dependent upon the development of viable end markets. Most of the efforts to-date have increased our understanding of best practices in collection and sortation, but all identify that significant more work needs to be invested into developing economically viable end markets. Once a robust revenue source is established for post-consumer multi-material flexible packaging, it will be easier to justify the investments required to drive further collection and sortation.
Shaping the future of multi material flexible packaging recovery
“Recovery” is an all-encompassing term for a wide range of re-processing technologies that use waste materials to create various new products or resources. Our findings from reviewing existing initiatives and our own projects suggest that there is a future for the recovery of multi-material flexible packaging through some mechanical and chemical recycling processes, and also composting. However, all of these options require significantly more investment, research and innovation to scale.
MMFP in the circular economy
One way to look at the relationship between the various recovery options for MMFP is in terms of different loops in the circular economy. MMFP can fit into the circular economy through an inner loop of reuse of the package, a middle loop of polymer recycling, an outer-middle loop of feedstock recycling, and an outer loop of composting, which brings the materials back to the raw elements of nature, and feedstock recovery, which displaces virgin resources used as fuels (see above section on Processing and End Markets - “Clarifying Terms” to read more about these terms). All of these represent opportunities for MMFP in the circular economy.
Products and packaging do not need to be put back into exactly the same products they came from. In fact, a variety of diverse end markets is desirable from an economic perspective to scale up recovery incentives for these materials.
Long term viability of these different recovery options will be dependent upon the development of viable end markets. Most of the existing efforts to-date that we evaluated increased our understanding of best practices in collection and sortation for mechanical reprocessing (i.e. polymer recycling), but significantly more work needs to be invested into developing economically viable end markets. Once a robust revenue source is established for post-consumer multi-material flexible packaging, it will be easier to justify the investments required to drive further collection and sortation.
The Role of Feedstock Recycling for MMFP
Feedstock recycling technologies are going to be necessary to address recovery/recycling of multilayer flexible packaging by expanding possibilities for end markets.
The benefits of feedstock recycling:
- Produces virgin-like plastic from mixed plastic waste that currently cannot be recycled. This addresses limits with the quality of recycled content currently available on the market via mechanical recycling and creates new markets for these materials;
- Enables high levels of recycled content to be used back in polyolefin-based flexible packaging, which is not currently possible today due to performance challenges;
- Potentially solves issues around food safety and FDA compliance for recycled content;
- Complements mechanical recycling, providing recycling options for mixed plastic waste while not cannibalizing existing recycling streams and markets;
- Drives economic growth by adding jobs to the system and new areas of expertise and technical know-how;
- Helps maintain the social license to use flexible packaging, enabling the continuation of environmental benefits of flexible packaging like material efficiency and lower emissions profiles compared to rigids, as well as a key role in avoiding food waste.
There are some additional important points that must be taken into account:
- A pathway to collection of all flexible packaging is essential to scale feedstock recycling. There is a lack of collection for mixed plastics and flexibles, and it is critical to establish pathways for collection that will eventually serve to supply feedstock recycling.
- There is a need to better understand environmental impacts - There has been research by groups like CE Delft and BASF suggesting that feedstock recycling is similar in GHG emissions to polymer recycling, however there is a need for further research to better understand nuances related to carbon footprint and toxicity impacts of various technologies and end market applications. We also recognize that LCAs will change as our energy mix evolves to be more renewable.
- It is critical to track materials to their final outputs. This is key in determining if something is being recycled into new products or recovered as fuels and is needed to create credibility and accountability in the marketplace when making claims and communicating with consumers and other stakeholders. GreenBlue’s Recycled Materials Standard is working to establish this process.
- Feedstock recycling is a medium to long term solution transition occurring in industry. It is already entering the market in Europe and has new partnership projects in place in the U.S. However, we need additional efforts to support the scaling of these technologies in North America, such as pilot projects, scaling of existing pilots, tracking/tracing, investment and supportive policies.
- Feedstock recycling is not a silver bullet. Industry also needs to design for mechanical recycling when possible and explore refill/reuse and composting options.
This group will continue to track and explore ways we can support the development of these technologies and packaging to accommodate them in a way that is environmentally responsible.
Prioritizing Strategies for MMFP Recovery
There is a hierarchy of preference for these recovery options based on environmental footprint and end products.The underlying principles inherent to the Waste Hierarchy offer a general philosophical approach to best and better recovery. The most preferable recovery process:
- Retains maximum amounts of the embodied economic and environmental investment within the feedstock material
- Is socially just, economically productive, and incurs minimal environmental impacts.
- Creates products or resources that directly offset the use of conventional industrial inputs (such as virgin petroleum), creating an overall circular system that is sustainable and regenerative.
Following Reduction and Reuse, the most preferable forms of recovery are Recycling (including both chemical and mechanical processes that meet ISO definitions for recycling), Composting, and Energy Recovery processes where plastics are either used as fuels or energy is used for heat/generating electricity, Incineration where energy is not recovered, Landfill, and finally Litter or unmanaged waste.
Producers of MMFP should prioritize their recovery efforts accordingly.
- Reuse materials - Wherever possible, explore and innovate new reusable packaging models.
- Design for mechanical recycling - Wherever possible, explore mono- material designs that are more widely recyclable in today’s existing mechanical recycling infrastructure and can be collected through existing store-drop off programs and curbside programs in some places. Best practices for light use of barriers in mono-material packaging can be found in CEFLEX’s Design for Circular Economy Guidelines.
- Help enable the growth of feedstock recycling processes - When performance needs require the use of multi-material flexible packaging, then mechanical recycling on its own is not likely viable for the breadth of flexible packaging designs/material combinations. Investing in pilot projects and testing new chemical processes that can increase the viability of recycling of these materials is required to scale these technologies. This includes both polymer recycling through use of purification technologies and feedstock recycling for MMFP. (See above for an explanation of these terms and examples).
- When relevant to the products, invest in composting infrastructure- Compostable packaging is a good solution for specific types of MMFP that are food packaging and may be soiled, thereby limiting prospects for recycling. If putting compostable material onto the market, it is advisable to also invest in developing collection infrastructure to manage those materials, enabling them to be effectively composted.
- Build bridges with energy recovery - The end use of plastics as fuels or energy are seen in general as a less desirable recovery option for MMFP, as the ability to continuously re-use materials is eliminated when material is burned as fuel or energy. However, there is still a place for these outputs in bridging the gap for flexible packaging recovery, especially in the context of Feedstock Recovery, as a replacement for virgin inputs and until plastics-to-plastics markets are scaled up.