Widespread adoption of circular design will increase the share of recyclable flexible packaging in the waste stream, providing more valuable recycled materials to use again, but to achieve this economic ripple affect the industry first needs to rethink how they design and make their products.

Flexible packaging provides resource-efficient functionality across a range of sectors but the design process has not always factored in what happens after products are thrown away – something that needs to change if companies want to find their circular path ahead.

Liz Morrish, CEFLEX

Liz Morrish, CEFLEX

“Marketeers and technologists have not always thought about what happens to a package once the consumer has used the product,” said Liz Morrish, who works on design for the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) initiative, a collaboration of over 190 European companies, associations and organisations representing the entire value chain of flexible packaging. “For widespread change we need brand owners to improve their designs, but in parallel we also need more and better infrastructure for waste collection, sorting and recycling across the value chain,” she adds.

CEFLEX has shown the collective way forward with its ‘Designing for a Circular Economy’ guidelines (D4ACE), which shows how the flexible packaging value chain can shift its designs towards recyclability. Over three years, hundreds of experts helped create the guidelines and the information is now helping the sector collectively move towards a circular economy.

According to Liz, one of the most important redesign steps to take is to bridge past, current and future needs. This keeps a design focus on using the least amount of material to create packaging that protects a product from damage or deterioration while also being able to provide all the needed information for consumers. However, it also adds essential sustainability aspects – like how packaging aligns with circular collection, sorting and recycling systems.

“Our top recommendation is to redesign towards a mono-material wherever possible,” Liz said.

The D4ACE guidelines explains that a mono-material approach should ensure >90% of one polymer type is used as the main component of a pack with the remaining elements being adhesives, barrier materials and inks.

“In the past, the industry would have said this is too ambitious, but over the last few years we’ve seen it is actually possible,” said Liz.

For example, the D4ACE guidelines helped Kraft Heinz and Gualapack develop the first fully recyclable pouch made almost entirely from mono-materials, which was also designed to be easily recycled into a polypropylene (PP) stream.

CEFLEX has also supported a range of its other stakeholders on their future product designs, such as PepsiCo, Nestlé, Ferrero, Mondelez, and Unilever – all of whom have committed to make 100% of their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

These sustainable innovations and commitments go a long way in nudging the flexible packaging value chain towards circularity by providing a greater supply of recyclable raw material for new and existing markets. But despite progress, more data, proof-points and technical know-how is still needed to help the industry find its circular way forward, from the flow of materials to the recyclability of different materials and elements in flexibles.

Filling the gaps

Haulwen Nicholas, CEFLEX

Haulwen Nicholas, CEFLEX

CEFLEX’s second phase of the D4ACE guidelines aims to provide outstanding information and is working on detailed scientific testing and evaluation on how flexible packaging can be designed to contribute to a more circular collection, sorting and recycling system.

Haulwen Nicholas is leading phase two of the D4ACE guidelines and explained that CEFLEX will provide an overview of what types and levels of materials and elements are currently acceptable for circularity and how they could be designed to boost recycling, while also protecting the packaging’s functionality. “Phase two is about getting the scientific, credible and independent data to answer the questions we couldn’t answer in phase one,” she said.

The idea is that any stakeholder in the value chain can utilise the D4ACE guidelines to design flexible packaging for a circular economy, meaning there will be a sustainable solution for their desired combination of materials.

“Once we’ve got a better understanding of the impact of different materials and elements, and their relationship with sorting and mechanical recycling, that’s going to give even clearer guidance to packaging technologists,” Haulwen said.

To support this process, CEFLEX established 15 expert groups, made up of value chain representatives, dealing with the range of materials and elements used in flexible packaging, everything from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), paper and aluminum to inks and adhesives. Each group focuses on answering a range of technical questions on circularity design specific to their area of expertise.

Testing will also be conducted to determine the circularity limits of different flexible packaging materials as they flow through mechanical recycling technologies as well as modern sorting techniques, such as Near Infrared (NIR) measurements. An additional independent peer review of existing data to reinforce the experiments’ findings is also being conducted – all of which will then feed into the update of D4ACE guidelines.

“We envisage testing to start in the first half of 2022 so that we can update the design guidance later this year,” Haulwen said

Galvanizing market forces

As each information gap is closed, the picture towards circular design for flexible packaging becomes clearer and technologists can increasingly make the right decisions, as well as position themselves better for future changes to the marketplace.

Liz explains that businesses already onboard with circularity are a step ahead of their competition because once Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fees reward circular design more flexible packaging companies will need to rethink how they design and make their products.

“Good design would be rewarded by lower EPR fees so if a company designs something to be recyclable, they will pay a lower fee on that packaging and it becomes a direct financial incentive,” she said. “Then circular design is not just a nice-to-have, it’s part of the value chain and companies will be financially rewarded for it.”

Haulwen acknowledges that it may take time to redesign a product for a more circular market, but she advises companies to get on board sooner rather than later because they will be able to support bigger brands with existing sustainability commitments as well as benefit from a first mover advantage.

“There’s so much confusion and misinformation out there,” said Haulwen, but added that CEFLEX has already helped put its 190 stakeholders on the same circular path. “The D4ACE guidelines have clear information on what to expect and [the second phase] will give even greater clarity on how redesign for packaging technologists.”