‘Flexible packaging’ – a test case for the EU’s recycling push

Making so-called “flexible packaging” recyclable is a momentous challenge for the industry because of the cumulated costs involved in the collection, sorting and recycling of these products. [allen watkin / Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Packaging recycling.

Lightweight soft packaging such as crisp packets or wrapping for chocolate bars is giving headaches to European recyclers who currently have little incentive to buy the collected material. The European Commission will seek to address this in July with its planned revision of the EU’s packaging and packaging waste directive.

One of the key objectives of the Commission’s new circular economy action plan (CEAP), tabled in March 2020, is to ensure that “all packaging on the EU market is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030”.

This means even complex-to-recycle packaging, such as crisp packets and wrapping for snacks or candy bars, will need to be recycled or replaced by greener options.

But making this type of “flexible packaging” recyclable is a momentous challenge for the industry because of the cumulated costs involved in the collection, sorting and recycling of these products.

At the end of the day, buying virgin material is often still the cheapest option for the food industry.

“The reason why flexible packaging is not recycled at the moment is because of the cost. Economically it has very little value,” said Justine Maillot from the Rethink Plastic Alliance, an environmental pressure group.

“It’s also because of insufficient volumes – flexible packaging is not collected separately in most European countries,” Maillot explains, meaning it’s usually not recycled and ends up being dumped in landfill or sent for incineration.

France and Belgium recently started collecting flexible packaging, following in the footsteps of Germany, Spain, and Italy, which started 20-30 years ago. However, improving collection does not mean the packaging will be recycled at the end of the day.

“The value for recyclers is low, there aren’t many buyers for it,” said Joaquim Quoden, managing director at EXPRA, the alliance of packaging recovery organisations. “Even if you collect and sort flexible packaging, you very often have to subsidise the recycling,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.

“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.”.

According to Maillot, one of the issues with flexible packaging is the multiple layers of different materials like plastic and aluminum, which are compressed together. Crisps are packaged like this to prevent the fat they contain from going rancid when exposed to oxygen.

“And that makes it very challenging to make the packaging recyclable,” she told EURACTIV.

The difficulty to recycle flexible packaging is also linked to the chemicals used in the packaging, which Maillot said can be “quite heavy in inks and additives” coming into the different layers of the packaging.

“So removing chemicals of concern will be essential to improve recyclability there. But the very fact that there are so many layers in itself makes it really hard to recycle.”

A more viable business for recyclers is to deal with heavier products like PET plastic bottles and other rigid packaging, which can be collected in sufficient quantity and have more value after recycling.

Crunch time for crisp makers as EU waste targets loom

The European Commission has set an EU-wide objective for all packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2030. But crisp packets are a particular headache for policymakers and the recycling industry because they are so tiny and lightweight.

The food and drink industry, as well as packaging manufacturers, acknowledge those challenges, saying they stand ready to address them. In a joint industry paper, they called on policymakers to tackle the full value chain – from product design to waste collection and recycling.

“We believe the transition towards a circular economy for packaging requires a policy response which fosters progress both in packaging design and waste management infrastructures including collection, sorting and recycling,” they said.

For the industry, the future recyclability of flexible packaging will require “scaling up the waste management infrastructure” as well as using “new sorting and recycling technologies, such as chemical recycling”.

According to Quoden, getting enough volumes will be essential to make recycling worthwhile. Because they are so lightweight, large quantities of crisp packets or snack bags need to be collected in order to make recycling viable economically.

The recycling industry will also need to specialise more in order to deal with specific waste streams, he said.

“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.”

“That’s why you need to make it easier to transport sorted waste within the EU, from one country to the other,” he said, calling for a “Schengen Area of waste” to be established within the European Union so that greater volumes of sorted material can be exchanged.

Recyclability by design

Reducing waste will be the top priority for the European Commission as part of its planned revision of the EU’s packaging and packaging waste directive (PPWD), expected to be tabled in July.

According to the Commission, only around 42% of the plastic packaging waste generated is currently being recycled in the EU.

And for Brussels, this is partly due to the way packaging is designed in the first place. “Packaging design does not sufficiently consider the difficulties and costs of treatment of packaging waste,” the EU executive said in a preliminary assessment of the directive’s revision.

“It has been calculated that design improvement could halve the cost of recycling plastic packaging waste,” the Commission said, citing a 2017 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

As part of the directive’s revision, the EU executive suggested it would look into design standards called “essential requirements” of packaging. Those date back to 1994 and “do not provide the regulatory push for design changes for re-use and recyclability”, the executive said.

“The essential requirements also leave too much room to interpretation, in particular about what qualifies as recyclable,” the Commission added, saying this has “spurred a trend towards light-weighting of packaging,” which sometimes came “at the expense of recyclability”.

Product design policy will be key to circular economy, EU says

As the European Union seeks to transition to a ‘circular economy’, the policy focus in 2021 will turn to products: how they are designed, and why so many seem to be made to throw away.

Quoden welcomed the EU’s push to bolster recyclability by design, saying this “has to be the way forward”.

In practice, he explained, this means going from an extreme variety of packaging types to a much smaller variety.

“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.”

Environmental campaigners also applaud EU efforts to improve recyclability by design. But they also believe something more radical needs to be done in order to reduce packaging in the first place.

“While we support redesigning packaging for recycling, the first thing we should think about is reuse and even eliminate packaging entirely,” Maillot said. “Is packaging really necessary? This is the first question we need to ask ourselves.”

Another priority, according to Maillot, is to promote reusable containers in retail stores instead of disposable packaging.

“For food – cookies, biscuits, etc. – we have already seen quite a lot of initiatives to replace flexible packaging with things like glass jars. When it comes to confectionery, there are also opportunities to put in place refill stations where people can come with their own bags or reusable packaging,” she said.

For her, the revision of the packaging and packaging waste directive is an opportunity to scale up these kinds of reuse systems and change some of the delivery models.

But at the end of the day, Maillot doubts that recycling soft packaging will ever become economically viable because chemical recycling is often being considered as the ultimate solution.

“From chemical recycling, you end up with recycled material in the form of syngas and oil – it’s not recycled directly. So in terms of the market, there is again very little interest,” she pointed out, because virgin plastic feedstock is so cheap.

“This is why we believe it’s probably better to simply phase out this kind of packaging – because it will never really be worth collecting and recycling. Instead, we should focus on redesigning and prioritising reusable packaging or other types of packaging that are actually easily recyclable or have high-value recycled content.”

Brussels plans new EU packaging rules to cut waste

The European Commission has started gathering views from EU member states, the packaging industry and online retailers ahead of a comprehensive review of EU rules on packaging waste, part of efforts to boost reuse and recycling rates by 2030.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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