Realising a circular economy is now a non-negotiable. Where once it was a concept few had heard of within the worlds of business and policy, it’s now enshrined in law, and a key part of business strategy. But the process to implement it will be smoother for some industries than others. For those who produce, collect and recycle flexible packaging – think pouches, films and shrink wraps – the way forward is not always clearcut.

It’s one of those gargantuan tasks with so many moving parts that it’s challenging to monitor, requiring action across numerous sectors and geographies. With many strategies and technologies all playing their part, from extended producer responsibility schemes (EPR) to chemical recycling, a scenario which sees all flexible packaging in Europe collected, sorted and recycled, is multifaceted. But how far along are we towards this goal?

recycling bag for kerbside collection

In terms of EPR, if there was a face to represent this concept for Europe, it would be Joachim Quoden. He is the managing director of the Extended Producer Responsibility Alliance, a network of 27 different EPR schemes, mostly in Europe. With 28 years experience, he’s seen the concept evolve, expand, and become a key lever in creating a circular economy for packaging. “In the past, the focus was on fulfilling recycling targets. But in the last two or three years, the focus shifted a bit,” he says. Now we are trying more and more to ensure circularity in general, and that means that we target all packaging.” Indeed, EPR for packaging will become obligatory in the EU by the end of 2024, under the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. At the moment, France and the UK are lagging behind in terms of setting up these schemes, but otherwise, says Quoden, the majority of EU countries have done so.

But of course, EPR is but one tool in the toolbox. “A circular system is provided by EPR, but the major job of industry is to produce packaging which of course can be recycled,” he says. Which leads us to Sun Chemical, the multi-national company which is attempting to do precisely that. The company supplies pigments, printing inks, coatings and adhesives, primarily to the packaging industry and Nikola Juhasz is their global technical director for sustainability. “There are a number of technologies we’re implementing that can help enhance recyclability,” she says. Some of these include replacing the plastic layer in a multi-layer packaging with a coating, so fewer materials are used, easing the burden on recycling sorting technology. They’ve also developed inks that can be more easily removed, and don’t cause colour contamination. These sorts of upstream strategies will pave the way for a smoother process and increased value captured downstream, adds Jusasz.

There are plenty of technologies being piloted at the sortation level and in conjunction with packaging producers – digital watermarking, for example, and glues optimised for recycling – but these sorts of technologies are not widespread. The lack of adequate recycling technology to sort and process flexible packaging at scale represents one of the biggest challenges to overcome. And in order to meet overall EU recycling targets, a rollout of more sophisticated technology will be necessary. According to a report by ETH Zurich, in order to achieve the EU’s 55% target, sorting capacity will need to increase by a factor of 2.6 and recycling by almost a factor of five.

Collection – the ultimate chicken and egg situation?

One of the pieces of this puzzle, which stakeholders across the value chain are busily trying to crack, is collection – because if it’s not collected in the first place, well, we are nowhere really.

Recently, a workshop was held by CEFLEX to formulate a unified stance on what the ideal collection system might look like, with key stakeholders from across the value chain chipping in. Along with the continued development of sorting technologies, the consensus was that it’s preferable for flexible packaging to be collected separately, although, if necessary, it can be combined with rigid plastics, metal and beverage cartons. Such a segregated system means less contamination at sorting stage, and in an ideal world, higher rates of recycling.

For companies who use a significant volume of flexible packaging, Mars for example, the collection point is a sticky one. “It is a chicken and egg situation,” explains global sustainable packaging manager, Feliks Bezati. It costs more to collect and sort flexible packaging than what it is worth on the open market. EPR programmes are nevertheless in place, but as yet, the market for flexibles is limited. While we wait for it to catch up, there is a shared responsibility from all stakeholders to continue to do their part, says Bezati. So for Mars, this means a 25% reduction in virgin plastics and 30% recycled content in their plastic packaging by 2025and continuing to participate in EPR schemes.

And this is where chemical recycling comes in. Although more expensive than mechanical recycling, chemical recycling needs to be part of the mix of strategies, argues Bezati. In this method, instead of materials being sorted, pulled apart, washed and melted down, materials are broken down to their original chemical building blocks. Contamination is less of a concern in this process, and importantly, in order to create food-grade recycled flexible plastics, it’s essential. “In our case, we don’t have a choice. If we want to get back this material to be used in our packaging (and we have committed that we’ll use 30% recycled plastics), our only option is chemical recycling,” he says.

And not to be forgotten in all of this are of course, consumers and the strategies municipalities can take to encourage high levels of participation in recycling. Vanya Veras is the secretary general of Municipal Waste Europe and has seen municipalities achieve success through a method called pay-as-you-throw (PAYT). “As a consumer, if you know you’re paying for what you put in your mixed waste bag, you will put as little in there as possible and as much as possible in your packaging waste bin and in your food waste,” she says.

There are a few ways to implement PAYT. In Belgium, for example, the consumer purchases designated bags – waste will not be collected unless presented in these bags. And in places like the Netherlands, Slovenia and some parts of Germany, for example, underground bins are unlocked via an ID card, waste bags are put in, but at a restricted volume, and the bill is sent to your home.

And does charging for waste in this way get the desired results? “When fees are introduced, there is a public outcry but it is a temporary thing. It takes maybe six months of complete chaos,” says Veras. And then? Things settle down and recycling rates go up. In one study conducted in the Italian city of Ferrara, for example, after a PAYT scheme was introduced, recycling rates went up by 40%.

With such a mixed bag of solutions and approaches, it can feel like there are almost too many avenues to explore. Too much complexity and nuance to grasp the full picture of what it will take to see all flexible packaging moving in a circular loop. Waste policy, of course, will also be instrumental. Targets for recycling of plastic packaging under the Waste Framework Directive have been increased significantly, from 22.5% to 50% by 2025, for instance.

But while all of these wheels are in motion, with each party absorbed in tackling their part of the challenge, convening organisations like CEFLEX exist to keep collaboration top of mind and accelerate technical solutions at scale. Because many hands, and many determined stakeholders, hopefully, make light work.