How can flexible packaging be better designed for circular sorting and recycling? A new testing programme is generating a wealth of independent data to accelerate the design of circular flexible packaging, according to reviewer Professor Kim Ragaert, chair of Circular Plastics at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

Flexible packaging is being sorted and recycled in many European countries, what information are we still lacking to make it more circular?

Recycling flexible packaging is complicated because it has to overcome contaminations and potential degradations of the source material – with a lot of unknown factors going on. That is why the industry needs more accurate information on the optimum packaging designs, composition of bales of recyclable materials from sorting facilities and tolerance limits of the end materials properties for future application development. The testing program we are doing, in preparation of updated design for recycling guidelines, is incredibly important in bridging the knowledge gaps and connecting these elements more effectively.

All the design guidelines out there today are somehow a condensation of existing expert knowledge and expert judgment. And there’s very rarely any hard data to support them. So, what we want to do is generate data to establish the facts beyond question. And then out of that data, generate updated, more specific and relevant guidelines.

What are the challenges and rewards of designing a testing programme like this?

The challenges range from very technical to more value chain oriented. The testing is comprehensive, but pretty straight forward in many respects. However, one challenge of working with a number of high-level labs though, is we have to make sure that if lab A and lab B are following the same protocol to ensure reliable, comparable data is generated. We are putting in place some round robin testing on top of the protocols themselves to ensure this.

The second aspect, and perhaps the biggest challenge, is how do we make lab testing relevant, converting very objective data into guidelines for designing products.

One of the things we are doing is testing the effects of a second element in the polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP) recycling stream with the reference being a complex composition representative of the recycled material, not a single virgin material. This will create a huge amount of binary data, which is done according to a way of testing that can be compared and scaled to distil the most effective insights.

As for further rewards, there is a definite added-value in data showing the impact of specific materials and elements in a flexible packaging structure on recyclability. This is different to assessing the recyclability of a whole pack, where protocols to evaluate the recyclability of a certain product already exist. Finally, this testing work and data will be shared in an open-data and collaborative manner to benefit the whole value chain and their partners.

What are the benefits of the collaborative approach with CEFLEX?

One of the great strengths of CEFLEX is that you have a lot of very important stakeholders at the table, from the entire value chain – we have virgin resin producers and recyclers, but also a lot of people that make the smaller components like ink producers and adhesive producers. There are some brand owners in there too.

The flow of information this creates is incredibly interesting because it covers all perspectives. When combined with the extensive testing insights, this could create a lot of reality checks that the entire value chain should know about. I think that’s super interesting.

Ultimately, my hope is the subsequent updated guidelines are broadly implemented so quality and quantity of flexible film recycling can increase and we make much more high quality products. That’s the goal, and the goal of CEFLEX, to move towards better quality than the current system is producing.

Prof. Kim Ragaert from Maastricht University

Prof. Kim Ragaert, Maastricht University