Recycling pro: Design standardisation is ‘way forward’ for flexible packaging

This article is part of our special report Packaging recycling.

Greater standardisation in design “has to be the way forward” in order to make it worthwhile economically to recycle lightweight packaging such as crisp packets. In practice, this also means reducing the variety of packaging available to the food and drink industry, says Joachim Quoden.

Joaquim Quoden is the managing director of the Extended Producer Responsibility Alliance (EXPRA), an alliance of packaging recovery organisations owned by the obliged industry.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Flexible packaging currently has low value for recyclers because of insufficient volumes and the multitude of different packaging types that need to be sorted after collection.
  • A key challenge is to find a market for the sorted materials and to convince packaging producers to take the recyclates, whose quality need to be as close as possible to virgin materials.
  • Greater standardisation in design “has to be the way forward” in order to make flexible packaging easier to recycle and re-use. In practice, this also means reducing the variety of packaging available to the food and drink industry.
  • Standardisation will also boost volumes for recyclers, provided that sorted waste can be traded freely across EU borders in a “Schengen Area for waste”.
  • Chemical recycling methods may offer a partial solution in the long-run but traditional mechanical recycling still has a lot of room for improvement and needs to be further developed in the next 5-10 years.
  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for packaging can serve as a template for other waste streams like textiles or mattresses.

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Countries like Belgium have started collecting waste plastic packaging such as crisp packets or wraps for chocolate bars, which are extremely lightweight and difficult to recycle. How many countries in Europe are currently doing this? Who are the best in class? And do you expect this to become the norm?

France and Belgium were among the last EU countries to collect those lightweight packaging – they started first with higher-value plastic packaging like bottles and other rigid packaging and then expanded to flexible as well.

In Belgium, they have started collecting them in the blue bags since 1 or 2 years now already. France, I believe, started a step-by-step process some years ago to roll it out across the whole country and it is very close now to offer it everywhere.

But most of the other countries like Germany, Spain, and Italy – they started collecting it from the very beginning 20 to 30 years ago, together with other kinds of plastics.

I’m not talking about the UK – they still do not have a real nationwide approach and are a very special case so you cannot really compare them with other European countries. They implemented 25 years ago a very special approach to EPR schemes where industry is incentivising recyclers but there is no structured collaboration with municipalities, collectors and sorters. So, every local authority is deciding what to collect in which way and to which extent, and at their own costs. It seems that this approach will be changed in the next years by introducing a model which is closer to the continental approach on EPR.

Perhaps you can compare them with Poland which tried to copy some elements of the UK system. So, they are more or less still starting from scratch, having to develop their own national infrastructure especially also for the recycling sector.

Does flexible packaging have any value, despite being lightweight?

The value for recyclers is low, there aren’t many buyers for it. Even if you collect and sort flexible packaging, you very often have to subsidise the recycling, especially if you’re not using the latest sorting technology. This means you have to pay the recycler to take the material instead of getting paid by the recycler for it. So, up to now, the economic chain is not fully functioning for flexible packaging.

There are many reasons for that. One of them is that there are a lot of different kinds of flexible packaging, e.g.:  mono material, multi-layer, and so on. And that means you need very good technology to be able to sort the waste into pure material streams which can then be reused.

That is the challenge still, especially because we did not really concentrate over the last years on flexible packaging. If you remember the old targets – first 15% for plastics then 22.5% – that means we concentrated first on the plastics which were the most economic to recycle, such as PET bottles and other rigid packaging. Only a few countries invested some money to recycle flexible packaging such as Italy, Spain, and Germany.

And that lasted in Germany until competition started between several packaging recycling operators (PROs). But since then, most of these expensive experiments were stopped as PROs concentrated on fulfilling the minimum target with the most economic packaging to recycle but not to overfulfil the targets.

Once collected, what happens to such lightweight packaging? Is it actually recycled or not?

It still depends from country to country. As soon as you need to fulfil higher targets, of course, you try to sort it and recycle the necessary amounts. And as the targets are now increasing step-by-step – to 50% for 2025, in addition to a new measurement point – I think we will see more and more recycling for this type of packaging as well. Because otherwise you will not reach the targets.

So, there are more and more recyclers offering this. But of course, the quality of the sorting needs to increase as well. That’s one of the reasons behind the Holy Grail project: we need additional technology to sort them in a better way.

Near infrared sorting technology is fantastic, but we need even more. This might be by polysecure and marker technologies, or by digital watermarking, who knows. Let’s see who will win this race.

You mentioned sorting as a challenge. What are the other challenges associated with those types of packaging when it comes to recycling?

The first challenge is to find a market for the sorted materials and to convince packaging producers to take the recyclates. That’s the next step. For instance, my Belgium member for commercial packaging, VALIPAC, has developed with a packaging producer a flexible film packaging that can uptake already 30- 35% of recyclates without losing the properties – so with the same properties as virgin material.

Of course, you can always recycle flexible film into park benches or whatever. But we are now trying to move step-by-step to the next level, to higher applications, and without blaming the existing variety of applications. Because, wherever you use the recyclates you are replacing virgin material which is the ultimate goal! Whether a PET Bottle is a better use for rPET than a T-Shirt is from my point of view a very complex discussion and the judgement depends on your priorities and opinions.

Environmentalists argue that the focus should first be on waste prevention and reuse. In some supermarkets for example, customers can refill bags of biscuits which are sold in bulk. Is this the way forward in your view?

Of course, reusable or refillable packaging has a lot of potential and we have to look for more applications. And that applies not just to consumer packaging but to the commercial packaging sector as well.

For consumer packaging, I think there is a lot that we can learn from the beverage sector. Refillable and reusable bottles are commonplace in Germany and Austria, for example. And the Czechs have a very good tradition for refillable beverage containers.

But for other products and packaging, I think there is still a long way to go. Especially because you have to take the consumer with you, and not “just” the 5-10% idealistic people who are ready to do the additional efforts. Because it is an additional effort for consumers.

So we need the majority of the people on board – people who work 8-10 hours a day, who come back late at home and don’t have time to cook but eat prepared stuff. That’s a challenge because it involves a change in our lifestyles. And that’s I think the biggest challenge.

Not to talk about the challenge of avoiding to consume more energy and CO2 by changing to reusable solutions.

Reusable bottles in Germany, I understand, is only environmentally viable when it is limited to small regions within a radius of about 100 to 200 kilometres. What’s your view on this?

Reusable bottles are economically more expensive, there’s no doubt about it. Because the retail sector needs to reserve some space to take all the returned bottles back. Then, they have to sort them into the right boxes, and transport it, which is expensive and also problematic from an environmental point of view.

But this is partly a problem we created ourselves. When I was a student, there were only three different types of bottles for beer: one standard bottle for Pils, one standard bottle for Kölsch, and one standard bottle for Weizen. Nowadays, there is a special bottle for each brand, even the trays are different from brand to brand and they aren’t standardised anymore! So, the marketeers took over, not the environmentalists or the CFOs.

Even the trays are branded now, so the retailers have to sort all the bottles into the right tray. And those bottles have to be brought back to Bavaria, or to the north of Germany, whereas in the past they were able to transport it to the next brewery.

So there is great potential to make this more environmentally sensible and decrease the costs of collection, sorting and transportation. But of course, the marketeers might tell you that people buy their beer because of the branding.

So that’s a question that industry has to answer, they have to take the decision. And whether it would be helpful for the EU to give targets to support this decision, I don’t know.

This “recyclability by design” concept is something that the European Commission is currently looking into. It involves some degree of standardisation in how packaging is made so that it is easier to collect, sort and recycle. Is this the way forward in your view?

It has to be the way forward. EXPRA is a very active member of CEFLEX, where we are working on design guidelines for flexible packaging. In practice, that means going from an extreme variety of packaging types to a much smaller variety.

And I don’t think that this will decrease competition. If there are 100 different kinds of flexible packaging, how can we possibly sort them out in a financially viable way? But if we have four or five different sorts, I think we can then have enough volume so that recycling makes sense, both economically and environmentally speaking.

Getting enough volume is the whole point, right? Because these things are so lightweight that you need enough volume in order to make it worthwhile…

Yes, but this counts for every kind of packaging we sort and you also need volume in order to find a recycler who is willing to take that kind of material.  That’s why you need to make it easier to transport sorted waste within the EU, from one country to the other. We think there should be a “Schengen Area for waste”.

Because the more we advance in recycling, the more we will need specialised recyclers to produce good quality recycled materials. And these specialised recyclers, they will need material coming not only from Belgium, but also from the Netherlands, France or Germany. So we should make it as easy as possible for them to get the stuff they need. But here, we speak about “sorted fractions in a certain quality”, not about “mixed plastics with unknown composition”.

You said standardisation by design is a necessary first step to ensure enough volumes come on the market. And then a Schengen Area of waste so that it can be traded across borders. What other measures or incentives do you think are essential in order to encourage recyclers to invest in the necessary machinery?

A first step is for all EU countries to fully implement existing EU waste legislation. In countries that have fully implemented the waste acquis, the situation is totally different than in other countries.

It’s as stupid and easy as it sounds: if a country is not implementing what has been agreed, then of course, it will be ages behind the other EU member states. So that’s for me the most important thing before we discuss new legislation. Some member states need to do their job.

Which countries are you referring to, can you be specific?

A lot of countries are not fulfilling the targets, not only for packaging but for municipal waste in general. I think an analysis of the Commission a few years ago showed that nearly half of all Member States will not reach the municipal waste recycling targets for 2020, including Malta, Hungary etc.

That’s why the former Commission started its “Virtuous Missions” to these Member States accompanied by experts to discuss and show these countries how they can reach the targets.

Unfortunately, the COVID crisis also stopped this very good project where I was personally involved.

Malta may be bad but it’s very small, it’s not going to make such a big difference at the EU level…

In the EU Council of Ministers, they can still block or hamper legislation even though they don’t have the same weight as Germany. And, small or big, I understand one of the main goals of our European Union to have similar living standards and conditions for all our inhabitants wherever they live. Shouldn’t it be easier for us to support a small country on its way to sustainability?

Coming back to lightweight flexible packaging, what is the potential of chemical recycling there? Is that a possible way forward in your view?

This is the big hope for many parts of the value chain. According to them, chemical recycling will solve all of our problems. But it’s like with all magical solutions and technologies: there are some very good plans but we have to make them fly now.

From our point of view as EPR systems, the most important part which has not yet been done, is to agree a definition for chemical recycling. We need a definition which is legally sound and accepted by all. And we need a measurement procedure so that we know how much of the chemically recycled material can count for the target.

If in the end, only 30 or 40% of the inputs can be counted towards the target, then this will determine how much we can rely on chemical recycling.

You seem to be more among the sceptics, I see…

I think it will work eventually but it will be only be a medium-sized part of the solution. For the next 5-10 years, I would put more effort on the traditional mechanical recycling methods where there is still a lot of room to improve performance.

Linked to the question of chemical recycling is the issue of inks, which are often found in flexible packaging. Those can be toxic for human health if they find their way back into recycled plastic. How can this issue be addressed?

In my view, this should be addressed in the design guidelines. To me, it’s clear that the food packaging industry should choose inks that do not hinder recycling.

The European Commission is preparing a revision of the packaging and package waste directive. What else could the EU do in order to boost recycling of lightweight plastic packaging?

With the current targets, we will see already a big boost in recycling: 50% by 2025, and 55% by 2030. And on top of that, you need to consider the new measurement point. Because compared to the current or old measurement point, you are losing 20 to 30% of your performance.

So if you express the new targets in the old measurements, it would mean a 65-70% recycling target. And this is already very ambitious, it means you will have to collect 80-85% of your plastic packaging in order to fulfil the targets, which is a lot.

And the boost will come with the infrastructure. So, we need perhaps minimum targets for how the collection systems should be accessible for the people. Something like this will be needed because the infrastructure is key. And as soon as member states are putting the legislation in their national law in a reliable way, you will see like in Belgium big investments in new sorting plants, recycling centres, and so on. And this is what we need all over Europe.

Enforcement will also be essential, and Germany is a good example. Since Germany launched their central agency in 2019, the performance of the system has improved dramatically. Everyone knows that if they behave badly, they will be punished so they all start behaving well all of a sudden. This is a big problem in many countries, especially those with competition amongst several PROs which don’t have the necessary monitoring and enforcement.

And on top of that, going more for reuse where it makes sense. This can be a good step, but I still do not know exactly how to do it in a way that will not be counter-productive.

You mean reuse can be a burden on the consumer?

No, I mean from a CO2 point of view, because reuse can lead to more emissions, more energy use, more water use, etc. This debate will become more and more relevant in the future, I believe. Essentially: what are the effects to our CO2 emissions if we go too far on reuse?

This could end up having the opposite effect of what we want to achieve. And a balanced solution will have to be found in the end.

The same goes with requirements for minimum amounts of recycled content going into new products. If you see now the developments for PET bottles, where you have this 30% minimum recycled target, the PET industry is now complaining about the use of their recyclates by other players.

Lego for instance wanted to use recycled PET in their new bricks. And that caused uproar among NGOs and the beverage industry who complained that Lego was stealing their material. Is this what we want? I don’t know. We want a good use of the recycled material but we don’t want a war between the different applicants.

The German deposit return scheme for bottles, do you believe it can be expanded to other types of waste?

I think that we should concentrate where the application of EPR could make sense. The big problem usually is that the municipalities don’t have enough money or don’t want to ask more money from their residents to run a proper waste collection infrastructure, not to talk about the competences that were given to the respective industries.

Asking a financial contribution to producers who place goods on the market, that makes a lot of sense to us. And if policymakers combine this with incentives to improve the environmental performance of products, the producers can save money as well.

Looking at textiles for examples, in two years municipalities will have to put in place separate collection schemes everywhere. How should they fund this? I don’t think that many municipalities have thought about this problem. Because today, people sell the most valuable clothes on eBay. What people used in the past to throw away in a textile container, they are now selling it online, which means recyclers are left with the least valuable textile waste.

I believe the only way forward is to bring the industry on board. For example, vendors who sell T-shirts for €1, when collection and recycling costs €2, they will stop making this nonsense. That’s why I think packaging can serve as a test case for textiles, for example.

In the US for instance, you have EPR systems for mattresses, for paints or even sharps. So even though they’re doing very little on packaging (Oregon and Maine are just introducing an EPR scheme for packaging), they have EPR systems for other waste streams. And it’s quite interesting to see what’s possible. We in Europe can learn a lot from them as well, although we often think that we are always the leaders.

To conclude, what do you think is the lowest-hanging fruit that policymakers should look at when revising EU waste and recycling legislation?

An easy win could be to put into law the 10 million tonne goal for recycled plastics, which was included in the Circular Plastic Alliance. That for me would be the easiest way because it would ensure that the industry continues to fight for it and the authorities could be sure that the goal will be reached and continued.

I think it is more difficult to set further minimum targets for recycled content for additional packaging items or sectors, as already started in the single-use plastic directive with a minimum recycled content targets for PET bottles. But it’s only my personal opinion, it’s not necessarily backed by EXPRA.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

Greater standardisation in design "has to be the way forward" in order to make it worthwhile economically to recycle lightweight packaging such as crisp packets. In practice, this also means reducing the variety of packaging available to the food and drink industry, says Joachim Quoden.

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