In this series of interviews, we speak with CEFLEX stakeholders leading the circular economy transformation. Here, Clemens Kitzberger, Business Development Manager Application Post Consumer at EREMA Group gives insight on elements of a sustainable end market for flexible and trials of a Quality Recycling Process.
What should be done to increase the amount of polyethylene and polypropylene that are put on the market as flexible packaging?
Improved design is a key element for achieving a circular economy in plastic packaging. Monomaterial polyethylene (PE) especially, but also mono polypropylene (PP) can get high quality recycled with existing mechanical technology. To make that work, the surface size and thickness of the packaging have to be big enough. So, reducing plastics by not producing very small flexible’s like single pack for small portions of confectionary. Industry also like recycled polymers in natural colours, so careful consideration of inks and colouring on packaging is important.
To avoid multi material packaging, brands and retailers can also check which performance requirements, such as shelf life are really necessary for their products. I am confident many multi materials can get over to mono material packs, enabling the return of those resources back into the economy and benefiting the environment.
How do you see existing technologies play a role in making the shift from today’s volume-based recycling into tomorrow’s value creating via quality recycling?
Existing technologies are able to do a lot more than we use at the moment. But to really make a sizable shift into the circular economy, we need packaging designed for the circular economy and investment in the latest technologies to produce high quality recyclates.
As with any major investment, a secure business case and model is needed. To make this a reality, investors need a clear business case and security of that investment in time. Achieving this has to include political discussions; what would help is an European harmonization of collection schemes supported by the whole value chain. Additionally a minimum stability in the price of virgin polymers is of critical importance.
Can we sort out recycled polypropylene from flexible plastic waste?
Of course we can! This is not an issue at all with latest NIR technologies. This needs to be tackled and done as PP is the second largest polymer amount in packaging. Important considerations to keep in mind for PP based packaging is to avoid thin wall packaging, too small packaging size (below A5) and too heavy ink coverage which are reducing its sortability and value in recycling.
What end markets do you see fit for the recycled polyethylene and recycled polypropylene from flexible packaging waste?
At the moment in PE, I would say non-food transport packaging (stretch, shrink, bags, etc.) and non-food packaging bags for PP.
To make food grade recycling possible – as they have done for years in HDPE milk bottle recycling – EFSA requirements call for dedicated collection schemes for food packaging which is not feasible in flexible packaging. More work is required to undenstand and demonstrate how food grade material quality can be delivered for flexible packaging recycling with existing or emerging mechanical recycling technologies.
Furthermore, risk assessment studies demonstrating that plastic packaging made with recycled polymers brings no contamination risk nor harmful substance for humans could provide a huge advantage to recycling flex packs. All in all, the consumer is key to making economically viable recycling possible, by keeping packs as clean as possible.
How can recycled polyethylene and recycled polypropylene from household collected waste be used in packaging applications?
The whole value chain can look at how they operate in the PET bottle industry. Here, the requirements are clear:
- 100% food grade virgin use
- Design for recycling: monolayer with no colour, ink, > 30µm thickness, > A5 size
- An adequate collection scheme with consumers keeping packaging as clean as possible
- A Quality Recycling Process incorporating all the elements we are working to achieve in CEFLEX workstream 3, that is to say: post NIR sorting, hot wash with decontamination agents, flakes sorting, double filtration extrusion at max 50µm, necessary homogenization and deodorization; for the last one EREMA has developed a performant technology called ReFresher which stands for odour reduction equipment and online quality measurement systems for quality control
If we can manage to put this in place, then we would have recyclates with properties comparable with the virgin polymers’ properties and which can be used as fit for the purpose for any targetted end application.
Who has to implement the changes in the collection, sorting and recycling of household collected flexible packaging in order to use the maximum amount of recycled polymers fit for packaging applications for your brands?
I think it is a combined effort throughout the value chain and this is why CEFLEX is such an important initiative which can facilitate this.
Brands and retailers need to cooperate with converters and petrochemical companies to embrace Designing for a Circular Economy Guidelines and a rational assessment of packaging properties.
We need political engagement and action on strict, harmonized rules for the whole EU to achieve quality collection, sorting and recycling and to also tackle CO2 emissions. I would also add to this engagement, waste managers and license holders which “own or contracted the waste”.
And finally, technology providers have to support the whole value chain with new technical possibilities and equipment that help accelerate delivery to the significant potential of a circular economy.