Full circle with flexibles: Amcor’s commitment to higher recycling rates

Flexible packages, such as confectionary wrappers, detergent pouches and re-sealable food bags, are the fastest growing types of packaging.

13 March, 2017
Currently faced with limited recycling solutions, this increase in flexibles presents an opportunity for collaboration between stakeholders across the value chain in order to come up with sustainable solutions.
That’s why Amcor is a core member of two regional initiatives aimed at driving the development of recycling options for flexibles: CEFLEX in Europe (also building on the UK-focused REFLEX project) and Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) in the US. On a global level, Amcor is core partner of the New Plastics Economy initiative of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which aims at creating a circular economy for plastics packaging.

Flexible packaging – the pros and cons

Flexible packaging is light and excels in terms of material efficiency and generally lower environmental footprint, compared, for example, to glass jars or metal cans. From an environmental perspective, it’s preferable in many ways. However, recycling of flexible packaging is still limited to a handful of countries and needs to be improved globally.

Barriers include the complexity and variety of the materials used, and a lack of processes for collecting, sorting, separating and recycling them. Both CEFLEX and MRFF aim to find viable, practical and economic solutions to these issues, and to define the market for recovered flexible plastics. To achieve this, they’re drawing expertise from raw material suppliers, packaging producers like us, FMCG companies, waste handlers, recycling processors and regulators.

Creating the missing link for flexibles

Amcor is working towards a future in which recycling facilities across the globe accept and process flexible packaging as easily as other types of packaging.

The CEFLEX project consortium includes companies like Dow Chemical Company Ltd, Suez, Bosch, Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Amcor. The relevance of the project is demonstrated by Unilever’s commitment to ensure that all of its plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 against a 2015 baseline as part of its Sustainable Living Plan.

Paul Polman, Unilever CEO, comments: “To address the challenge of ocean plastic waste we need to work on systemic solutions – ones which stop plastics entering our waterways in the first place. We hope these commitments will encourage others in the industry to make collective progress towards ensuring that all of our plastic packaging is fully recyclable and recycled.”

Collaborations like CEFLEX are integral to the fulfilment of goals like these. The findings of the REFLEX project (a predecessor to CEFLEX that concluded in 2016) are used as a starting point in terms of technical design for recycling requirements as well as infrastructure needs.

Potential solutions recommended by the REFLEX researchers include modified packaging designs, the use of digital watermarks, and the use and refinement of near-infrared sorting technologies.

Research undertaken during the course of REFLEX also considered the commercial value of recycled flexible packaging, conducting trials to demonstrate the performance of recyclates for specific applications, such as shipping crates and drainage pipes.

As Roger Morton, Director of Axion Consulting and leader of the REFLEX project, explains, flexible packaging is “waiting to be mined for high-quality materials with the potential to be recycled into all kinds of long-life applications, from automotive products to rotational/injection-moulded items.”

Managing single-stream recovery

One of the biggest challenges in recycling flexible packaging is capturing it in single-stream material recycling facilities (MRFs), the prevalent system in the US. As a result, Amcor has been working with the MRFF project in the US alongside Nestlé, P&G, PepsiCo, SC Johnson, Target and others to find practical solutions to this issue.

Our initial research found that efficient separation is possible given appropriate screening and optical sorting methods. The necessary technology is either already in use within MRFs or can be easily retrofitted; it merely needs to be optimised.

The MRFF project is embarking on further research to define these enhancements, and to evaluate end-uses for recycled plastic films. The project will also build a pilot plant within a recovery facility to test and develop our ideas.

Thanks to these initiatives, the industry is drawing closer to an end-to-end solution for flexible packaging. Amcor will continue to collaborate with partners across the value chain as we strive to close the loop on these materials.

A global value chain approach

Amcor is the core packaging partner of the Ellen McArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy, an initiative dedicated to developing a circular economy for plastic packaging. Within this initiative, we are leading a project to create a global standard for the recycling of flexibles. Together, the 13 companies participating – including Dow, Nestlé and Veolia – represent all steps in the value chain and strive to create guidelines on which high-barrier flexible packaging designs are suitable for recycling (“recycling-ready”). 

This standard will help to identify, and where possible adopt, recycling-ready packaging options and after-use processes. In addition, the standard will inform longer-term targets aimed at innovation for difficult packaging applications.  
Following the delivery of a global standard, the New Plastics Economy will target the development of an implementation roadmap, including commitments from the involved companies in all stages of the value chain. 

Visit our sustainability section to find out more about our sustainability goals and programs.

Learn More from CEFLEX and MRFF Partners

Discover more about the future of recycling flexible packaging from our “Big Ideas” series of expert talks and discussions hosted by Amcor. We invited partners from CEFLEX and MRFF for a panel discussion titled "From Trash to Tresure: Closing the Recycling Loop on Flexibles Packaging." You can watch the video to hear about their progress and challenges on our post-event page: www.amcor.com/bigideas/archives 

Gerald Rebitzer
Sustainability Director