Developing new and growing existing markets for recycled materials can go a long way in helping the EU meet its circular economy ambitions. CEFLEX has now identified major opportunities to focus supply and demand for alternatives to virgin materials and boost circularity in flexible packaging.

The Circular Plastic Alliance (CPA) estimates that only 5.2 million tonnes of plastic recyclates are produced annually in the EU[1]. This is just half of the CPA and European Commission ambitions to achieve at least 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics in products and packaging placed on the European market each year by 2025. To reach the target, we need to seriously address the range of recyclate qualities available to make recycled plastics suitable for a wider range of new and potentially more demanding applications.

“Today there are still insufficient incentives to create economically viable streams of recyclable plastic waste in a quality that enables them to compete with virgin plastics,” said Frederic di Monte, end market project lead for the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) project, a collaboration of over 180 European companies, associations and organisations representing the entire value chain of flexible packaging.

Frederic Di Monte, CEFLEX

Frederic Di Monte, CEFLEX

“If we can overcome this challenge, then CEFLEX has identified existing and new plastic end markets with an additional potential demand for at least 1 to 2 million tonnes per annum post-consumer recyclate from flexible packaging. This additional volume of post-consumer recyclate would be a significant contribution from the flexible film and packaging sector towards reaching the CPA recycling targets.”

CEFLEX is investigating new and existing markets for recycled flexible packaging materials and the findings have identified a range of options for the sector to support EU recycling goals, with some of the most promising opportunities found in the most common industrial and non-food consumer packaging polyethylene (PE) films and bags.

“There is a sizable established market for recycled PE which is either from pre-consumer waste or commercial and industrial post-consumer waste,” he said. Frederic adds that with the right quality of post-consumer recyclates coming out of the flexible packaging waste stream, recyclers could gain access to more demanding end market applications such as labels, collation shrink films, heavy-duty bags and other non-food bags. If the right quality was available at a competitive price, these markets could absorb hundreds of thousands of tonnes more recycled PE from the household flexible packaging waste stream alone.

And PE is just one segment of flexible packaging’s untapped value. There is also polypropylene (PP) – the second most used polymer for film and flexible packaging applications. Currently, most PP flexible packaging is recycled with the mixed Polyolefin stream and used in less demanding applications, such as outdoor furniture or plant pots. Whilst this is already very positive, CEFLEX says a circular economy will need to additionally embrace more demanding applications to increase end markets for these recycled materials.

“There is potential to galvanize recycled PP demand in demanding film markets, such as labels and non-food pouch applications as well as scaling up demand in rigid plastic applications in non-food packaging and non-packaging uses,” said Frederic. “These include items and sectors such as plastic pallets, caps and crates, automotive, outdoor furniture, household and domestic appliances”.

He estimates that developing these end-markets could absorb an additional 600,000 to 1.2 million  tonnes of post-consumer recycled PP each year with up to 200,000 tonnes going into film applications where no recyclate is used today – “but only if the sector and policy-makers take the right steps to transform the playing field”.

Developing markets

Capturing PP, PE and the other, as yet untapped flexible packaging materials rests on overcoming a tough balancing act – increasing the supply and the ‘right quality’ of post-consumer recyclate whilst simultaneously developing incentives for the full range of end markets to be able to use these circular raw materials to replace virgin materials.

“The challenge to make these materials fit for the circular economy is complex and multi-facetted. If packaging does not ensure end of life options are incorporated into the design process, then recyclability is hindered. Also, collection and sorting schemes need to be designed to capture the right quantity and quality of PE and PP flexible packaging from the post-consumer waste stream. Flexible packaging recycling processes are not yet focused on providing for more demanding applications with, for instance, removal of labels, inks, non-target polymers or odour. This is primarily because flexible packaging materials have not been needed to meet minimum recycling targets. This is no longer the case as they represent over 40% of the plastic packaging materials placed into the market annually – mainly to deliver and protect the food we eat – and are needed to achieve the 50% plastics recycling target by 2025” Frederic says. Until very recently, economic factors did not favour using recycled PE or PP due to the low price of virgin materials.

The circular economy advisor adds that the first step to re-balance the scales is to design all flexible packaging for recycling. The CEFLEX ‘Designing for a Circular Economy’ (D4ACE) guidelines advise designing mono-material flexible packaging containing at least 90% of the material to be recycled. This will make it easier to sort and recycle and to supply more quality recycled materials for new and existing end markets.

“If brands start to tell the market that they need a specific volume of recycled PE or recycled PP of a certain quality, then the market will react and will start to look at various investment opportunities to expand capacity”

“The second factor is for the industry to dare to innovate with recycled content,” he said, adding that when businesses commit to a high percentage of recycled plastic, sourced from flexibles, in their packaging or any other application, it sparks an economic ripple effect across the market.

The final piece of the puzzle is transparency. CEFLEX is working with its stakeholders to investigate how much current demand exists for recycled flexible packaging materials and how much businesses are willing to commit to use in the future.

“If brands start to tell the market that they need a specific volume of recycled PE or recycled PP of a certain quality, then the market will react and will start to look at various investment opportunities to expand capacity,” he said, adding that estimates show current demand outweighs supply.

Another crucial step to unlock greater demand for recycled materials from flexible packaging is by developing chemical recycling. A large share of production (more than 50% of consumer flexible packaging) goes into applications where food safety regulations apply. Today, mechanically recycled content cannot meet these regulatory standards. Chemical recycling will be a vital recycling pathway that can produce circular plastic materials for food-contact applications and with a lower carbon footprint than virgin polymers. “If you want to avoid virgin polymers for food packaging, then we have to develop a chemical recycling pathway for these polymers,” Frederic said. “Besides, there is a technical limit to the number of times plastics can be mechanically recycled. After this limit is reached, chemical recycling is needed to re-make them and to restore their virgin properties”.

Greasing the wheels

CEFLEX understands where the markets for recycled PE and PP are, but in terms of developing these opportunities there are still several factors that other actors in the value chain must address to make green profits flow quicker.

“Every country has a different structure, infrastructure and approach to recycling,” said Frederic. “We need more harmonisation and to clarify the regulatory framework so that it works in the favour of circular material systems.”

Legislative gaps also exist around definitions on what exactly ‘recyclability’ means which poses a regulatory obstacle to support rolling out better pack design and investment in essential solutions like chemical recycling.

“All these pieces of the puzzle need to work together,” he said. “Then we will have incorporated all the externalities into the system cost and will create a level playing field for the sector to make an even stronger contribution to realising more sustainable production and consumption and in doing so, also help reduce the impacts of climate change and eliminate plastic leakage into the environment.”

[1] Circular Plastics Alliance – State of Play on Collection and Sorting