Recyclable packaging

December 15, 2022

As companies strive to achieve ever more stringent sustainability goals, many are looking to their packaging recyclability profile as a potential area for improvement. Here’s my take on the topic.

What options currently exist for businesses?

Whilst this important push towards a sustainable future will no doubt continue to build momentum, it is vital that businesses understand what the options currently look like when they opt for recyclable flexible packaging and what they are actually achieving in this endeavour.

In order to make their packaging more recyclable, companies are increasingly utilising mono-material polyolefin solutions for their flexible packaging, such as PE or PP.  Guidelines produced by the circular economy consortium CEFLEX (See D4ACE guidelines) propose that a plastic mono-structure of 90% polyolefin is compatible with mechanical recycling, ensuring that barriers such as EVOH can continue to be integrated into the film structure to extend the shelf life of perishable goods. As research continues, it is anticipated that the guidelines will include advice on the use of additional barrier materials such as OPA (nylon) and aluminium - both particularly useful for liquid spout pouches and packaging that needs to withstand high temperatures and pressures. 

Whilst there is currently no universal regulated definition for recyclability, it seems pretty reasonable to expect something classified as recyclable to actually be recycled. As things currently stand in the UK, there is very limited coverage of the collection, sorting and recycling of flexible packaging taking place by local authorities. It is estimated that less than 10% of plastic-based flexible packaging is currently recycled!

What is the point of making it more recyclable, then?

Well, this may seem a pointless endeavour but there is a sensible logic behind it. By making flexible packaging more recyclable, companies are effectively improving the end of life prospects of the material for recyclers. Mono-material plastic structures are actually more valuable to recyclers, and increasing the availability of this feedstock effectively improves the business case for the infrastructure (collection and sorting) to be put in place for consumers.

This seems like quite a responsibility for SMEs and start ups to take on, and it would seem reasonable to conclude that all of this should be left to government, local authorities and multinationals to sort out. Interestingly the push from consumers for the ability to recycle their flexible packaging such as crisp and chocolate wrappers, pet food pouches and single use plastics has led supermarkets to start of offer recycling collection points.

Consumers can now find their local drop off point using a tool developed by the Waste and Resources Action Plan (WRAP) initiative on a special purpose website called Recycle Now. Whilst on the surface it seems as if this solution will help remove unnecessary plastic waste from the environment, there is very limited information on what happens to the packaging after it has been deposited in the recycling bin. Even though there is potential for the packaging to then be sent to landfill after it has been collected, it is still a promising development that there is now a collection mechanism in place that can be built upon.

As truly recyclable flexible packaging becomes more wide spread and is then deposited in designated recycling collection points, it is hoped that the business case for this waste stream will continue to improve, leading to more sortation and actual recycling taking place in the UK.

“I want to start the conversations that help to dispel the myths around sustainability”

– Elliot Hyams