Axion Consulting is leading an innovative collaborative project involving high-profile global brands aimed at significantly improving the recyclability of flexible packaging and diverting more of it from landfill.
The two-year REFLEX project, funded by the UK’s innovation agency, 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.
Joining the Manchester-based resource recovery specialist are Amcor Ltd, Dow Chemical Company Ltd, Interflex Group, Nestlé UK Ltd, SITA Holdings UK Ltd, TOMRA Sorting Ltd and Unilever UK Central Resources Ltd.
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.
“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,” explains Axion Director Roger Morton.
“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, two global brands that see consumer value in offering recyclable packaging, industry-wide guidelines for recyclable packaging will be agreed and disseminated.
Each step of the process will be trialled during the project, thus demonstrating to the full supply chain that it is viable to create a circular economy in plastic flexible packaging.
Currently, recycling flexible film presents a number of challenges with low yields due to multi-layer barrier materials, difficulties in sorting it from bulk waste and high ink loadings that affect the final recycled product colour. Confusion among consumers over what exactly can be recycled is also a significant barrier to recovering more of these materials.