Trade Resources Industry Views Nestle and Unilever Join a Project to Develop Flexible Packaging in UK

Nestle and Unilever Join a Project to Develop Flexible Packaging in UK

Flexible packaging such as plastic bags, confectionery wrappers, frozen food bags and pouches makes up nearly a third (32%) of consumer plastic packaging in the UK, however virtually all of this 556,000 tonnes produced annually ends up in landfill. By contrast 58% of plastic bottles are recycled. The flexible packaging situation in the UK is a typical, not atypical, example of the problem worldwide. While flexible packaging tends to use less material that a rigid packaging counterpart, the world’s dependence on flexible packaging is growing. At the same time, the world’s infatuation with single serve packaging is growing.

Due to the sheer number of compositions in plastic laminates used for flexible pouches this recycling process is currently (almost) impossible to implement, too complicated and too risky in terms of investments. So the two-year research and development program, Reflex, funded by Innovate UK, aims to create a circular economy for flexible packaging – from confectionery wrappers to detergent pouches – by involving the whole supply chain, from polymer production and packaging manufacture to waste management and recycling.

The project is being headed by resource industry consultants, Axion Consulting, and has £917,000 (AU$1,727,000) in funding. It has already attracted the support of a number of interested parties. As well as headliners, Nestle UK and Unilever UK Central Resources, Amcor, Dow Chemical Company, Interflex Group, Sita Holdings UK and Tomra Sorting have joined.

Axion director, Roger Morton, explained, “Flexible plastic packaging represents a huge challenge to current recycling routes, because seemingly ‘simple’ packages, such as a biscuit wrapper, may incorporate several functional layers to deliver heat-sealable, oxygen barrier, metallised, printed and varnished packaging with high tear strength, good puncture resistance and minimum cost. The complexity of these multi-layer films makes them virtually impossible to recycle by current methods because of the mix of polymer types and inks used.

“This project aims to remove the barriers preventing flexible packaging being recycled, thus enabling recyclers such as Axion and SITA to change the supply chain, create a circular economy in flexible packaging and divert it from landfill. To achieve this, innovative recyclable flexible package designs and materials are required, where all the materials used can be reprocessed together. Recycling these materials is still very technically and commercially challenging.”

The project will include innovative inks, new barrier polymers, novel packaging designs and a new automated sorting technique. With the backing of Nestlé and Unilever industry-wide guidelines for recyclable packaging will be agreed and shared.

Research has already begun on ways to collect, sort and reprocess packaging into high-quality plastic pellet form, that can be used in the manufacture of a range of secondary products. Each step of the process will be trialled over the two years, to demonstrate the viabilty of creating a circular economy in plastic flexible packaging to the full supply chain.

Axion predicts that the market will take 10 years to mature into a new recycling model - in a trend similar to that of plastic bottle recycling - at which point, it expects, more than 50% of flexible packaging will be diverted from landfill.

Earlier this year, Nestlé UK & Ireland were involved in a similar project with Coca-Cola Enterprises and Tesco, funded by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to develop viable approaches for collecting flexible packaging materials containing aluminium to improve its recycling and remanufacture.

Contribute Copyright Policy
Unilever and Nestle Unite to Develop a Circular Flexible Packaging Economy