CEFLEX and partners are conducting a multi-country compositional analysis to research the type and amount of flexible packaging and rigid plastic packaging in the post-consumer waste stream. The research is providing valuable data to understand the collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure needed in each country.

Following in-depth compositional analysis at sites in the UK and Germany, and now also The Netherlands and France, a multi-country study by CEFLEX, Resource Futures, and partners PCEP, Petcore Europe, Styrenics Circular Solutions and the Tubes Recycling Project managed by Stina Inc. continues to gather insights on the reality of today’s collected household packaging waste. The insights generated represent a vital step forward towards a circular economy for packaging materials.

In addition to the extensive data gathered at each site, a first round of country-to-country analysis is starting to be made. Across four countries (UK-Germany-The Netherlands-France), a total of 12.8 tonnes of residual waste and 4.9 tonnes of recyclables were sampled, sorted and analysed giving several levels of detailed data.

CEFLEX will be focusing on key takeaways specific to flexible packaging and collaborating with its rigid plastics partners to explore insights across all formats.

Separate collection and sorting can tap into lots of ready to recycle resources

Which waste stream flexible packaging is found in shows the impact of a well-established separate collection system for recyclables. For instance, flexibles are not widely separately collected for recycling in the UK, including by those local authorities where the research was conducted. This explains a higher percentage of flexible packaging found in the UK residual waste stream compared to Germany and the Netherlands

Headline percentage splits – excluding carrier bags and bin liners – by weight of flexible packaging in separately collected recyclable and residual waste streams in four major European countries:

% (by weight) of flexible packaging in: Germany Netherlands UK France
Residual waste stream 1.8% 3.7% 5.3% 3.7%
Recyclables waste stream 18.9% 17.6% 1.3% 6.8%

The study also found a significant amount of flexible packaging to be recyclable mono-polyethylene (PE) and mono-polypropylene (PP) – between 40% and 60% of flexible packaging depending on the country and waste stream.

Stream Germany Netherlands UK France
Residual 50% 40% 53% 46%
Recyclable 59% 52% 60% 49%

This encouraging finding indicates significant quantities of recyclable flexible packaging are potentially available to be sorted and returned to the economy, with amounts expected to rise further as design changes increase the proportion of mono-material packaging.

Country by country insights

The composition by country – flexibles in the recyclable stream data shows variation in the proportions of the different types of flexible packaging structures found in the separately collected recyclable waste stream country to country. This reflects different collection schemes in terms of what materials are and aren’t separately collected, but also different consumer habits and markets in those countries.

In all countries studied the greatest proportion of flexible packaging found in the recyclable stream is mono-materials films, primarily mono-PE and mono-PP. This is a positive finding as these are the materials most easily recycled and CEFLEX’s preference for designing flexible packaging. There is a varying proportion of multi-material structures country to country, with smaller amounts of paper-based, aluminium foil-based, biodegradable and compostable structures.

Flexibles in the recyclables stream

For rigid plastic packaging, categories most commonly found across all countries and both in the separately collected recyclables stream and the residual waste stream were polypropylene (PP) pots, tubs and trays; polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and pots, tubs and trays; plus high density PE (HDPE) bottles. There are relatively small amounts of other plastic packaging including tubes in the waste streams.

Assessment and categorisation

All packaging was manually sorted, identified and categorised using a standard and consistent set of categories. Category descriptions were simplified to support this process. ‘Multi-material complex combinations’ included flexible packaging structures such as those containing a combination of PET, Aluminium and PE for example, or structures with barriers materials or layers. ‘Multi-material twin combinations’ included structures that contained PA and PE for instance, or mixed PO structures’.

Assessment at each facility took place over five days, with 20 samples of 30-110kg recyclables and 20 samples of 140-180kg residual waste at locations in UK, Germany, The Netherlands and France in 2020-2022. Samples were taken from different loads, locations and times, with the aim to reflect variety in households and socio-economic factors. All samples were taken prior to the waste being sorted or processed. After identifying rigid plastic packaging, flexibles were separated by material type and product area, with a handheld NIR used to identify multi-material plastic films. An extensive number of categories and data were developed with CEFLEX, its partners, brand owners and packaging technologists. This allowed for plastic film identification based on a product or brand; and a library of known samples built to support identification using a hand-held NIR scanner.


Next steps

The four country study data has been extrapolated to a national scale, building our understanding of how much and what types of flexible packaging appears in the recyclable and residual waste streams in each country. This is vital to understand the collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure needed in each country and the implications for Extended Producer Responsibility schemes.

With the compositional analysis study now achieving an important threshold of completing fieldwork in four countries, CEFLEX stakeholders and partners can look forward to further webinars sharing insights and expert analysis, plus an executive summary of findings during 2023.