BLOG TOPIC: Packaging and the circular economy
Packaging and the circular economy
When considering the role of packaging today, we recognise its purpose in protecting and preserving goods in what have become increasingly long and complex supply chains moving goods from production to consumption around the world.
By minimising waste and loss, packaging is fundamentally an environmentally beneficial technology. However, once its mission has been completed – much to general society’s misunderstanding and frustration – it is simply viewed as waste and much vilified for its presence. As such, today’s packaging designers generally adhere to what is known as the Waste Hierarchy in the development of new packaging formats – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – in that order.
First, packaging must be designed with the minimum amount of virgin material possible, while maintaining its role in protecting the condition of packed goods. This increases reliance on recycled materials (where possible) and reduces energy used in shipment, thereby lowering the overall environmental footprint of the pack itself.
Once ‘lightweighted’, designers then seek to create packaging with a second life after its primary role of protecting goods on their journey from A to B. Can the pack be used for refill or reuse purposes to extend its life? If not - and which is often the case today outside of modern returnable tertiary transit packaging systems such as pallets, crates, and trays – designers then seek to avoid disposal into landfill or incineration but to make packs suitable for recycling.
This all sounds very logical and relatively simple to achieve. However, when we consider that today’s global packaging market is worth $456.3 billion and is growing at 3.1% CAGR1, we begin to understand the sheer complexity of materials, processes and applications that are involved in packaging development.
By designing packaging at the outset to be recycled post industry or consumer use, we endeavour to create a closed loop circular economy. Recycling involves the recovery, collection and sorting of materials into their respective types, then a washing or cleaning process where impurities are removed.
In the case of paper recycling, the paper is washed to remove any film, glue, ink or other contaminants and water is added to create a pulp. The pulp is then pressed, dried and rolled into sheets, which can then be used for new paper products.
In plastics recycling, the material is mechanically shredded into ‘flakes’ and then melted back into polymer pellets that can be sold on to be in used in the manufacture of new products.
But herein lies the issue. Collecting materials after they have been used for their primary packaging purpose usually means they are contaminated, damaged, or have been combined with other materials to achieve their packaging purpose. For example, paper or plastic labels have been applied, foils or plastic polymers have been laminated or coextruded together to provide barrier performance or, in paper and board applications, plastic lamination, inks or coatings are often applied to the material.
The purpose of the recycling process is to recover pure materials that have a commercial value as a feedstock for new packaging applications. Today’s recycling infrastructure is therefore designed to recover single streams of material to generate closed loop value e.g., paper fibre or a single polymer type.
If there is some form of ‘corruption’ of that value chain – be that in the physical attributes e.g., colour or clarity, or in functionality e.g., barrier or strength - value is lost and the resulting material cannot be returned to its primary packaging function. Instead, it is downcycled into secondary product applications that have a lower commercial value.
A good example of this was seen historically in Polypropylene (PP) packaging recycling. Often used for modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) of white meats due to its low cost and barrier performance, PP is also used in many more hazardous packaging applications, for example in household cleaning and garden products. Both PP food MAP and household packs are collected and recycled together, but the resulting PP recyclate cannot be returned to a primary food MAP application due to potential contamination of the flake with hazardous materials. This results in recycled PP being downgraded into other product applications such as garden furniture, losing the intended circularity of the recycling process.
Designing for the circular economy
Designing packaging not only to effectively protect, preserve, and present goods but to feed a closed loop circular recycling process involves the collaboration of multiple key stakeholders in the packaging value chain.
Brands and their packaging designers need to be able to design packaging that is manufactured from a single material that can meet all the functional and commercial requirements of today’s packaging applications and, in addition, the needs of the recycling industry. Consumers also need to be able to efficiently separate materials for kerbside collection post use.
Finding single substrates that offer the versatility of many of today’s more complex incumbent materials e.g., multipolymer flexible packaging laminates, is not a simple task. New technologies and extensive research and development investment is required from the packaging industry to achieve this aim.
On top of this, retailers and consumers are required to act responsibly to separate waste, governments are expected to invest in efficient household and industrial collection, and the recycling industry is responsible for investing in sufficient recycling capacity and developing new technologies that simplify the entire process for everyone.
Key packaging industry actions
The packaging industry is focused on improving the sustainability of its operations in general, minimising waste and optimising energy efficiency of equipment. It is also developing new materials and the associated systems that can convert and print on an array of new more sustainable packaging substrates. These include flexible barrier papers, moulded fibre, and mono-material polymer constructions1 that can meet both the needs of high-performance packing applications, as well as the recycling industry.
The use of renewable materials to replace plastics (where possible) is being embraced in line with consumer demands, and recycled materials are being included where feasible in plastics, in response to new legislative measures. These include new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations around the world and the UK Plastic Packaging tax that was introduced in April 2022.
In general, both societal demand and government legislation is encouraging the move away from single-use plastics and improvement in the recyclability of all packaging formats to drive the circular economy forward.
How is Flint Group contributing to the development of the packaging circular economy?
In line with its sustainability vision, Flint Group is focused on supporting the packaging industry, its partners and customers, by designing responsibly built products and sustainable solutions that address key concerns relating to performance, functionality, presentation and efficiency, and at the same time enabling the circular economy to flourish.
As a partner of CEFLEX, a European consortium of companies and associations representing the entire value chain of the flexible packaging industry, the company is working to further enhance the performance of flexible packaging in the circular economy by designing and advancing better system solutions.
Contributing to the consortium’s D4ACE2 guidelines – a robust set of design guidelines for the flexible packaging manufacturing sector and the recycling industry - Flint Group is working on a number of initiatives. These include collaborating with CEFLEX partners to understand and develop recycling technologies, their current feasibility, and obstacles, as well as the development of new ink innovations to minimise obstacles to packaging or label recycling based on the contribution of the ink or coating.
In addressing the need for clean recyclate, Flint Group has been working with the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) – an international trade association representing the plastics recycling industry – to test and certify its ranges for recycling-compatible capabilities.
One example of this cooperation has been the development and accreditation of inks for sinking crystallizable PET labels; a relatively new concept among PET recyclers to increase the amount of rPET to the market. This ink technology enables PET labels to deink and process alongside PET bottles in recycling infrastructure.
The team has also addressed the conventional recycling of floatable PE and PP labels by developing inks and coatings that remain adhered to the substrate. These inks and labels are designed to detach from the desired recyclate, resulting in clean plastics for future use. Flint Group developed ZenCode Shrink NCG for this purpose, a new water-washable solvent-based gravure ink, which is now fully certified for use in PET shrink label applications.
Finally, Flint Group now offers an ink range tested for water-based de-inking via the CADEL DEINKING4 patented process. The technology enables the removal of solvent-based inks from polyolefin films. The process results in recyclate with a quality similar to that of virgin plastic, which can then be used in the same applications as a new material, without compromising sustainability performance.
This proprietary water-based technology is unique, and its patent has been extended to over 20 countries worldwide. Importantly, it is suitable for various polyolefin film types including Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE), High-Density Polyurethane (HDPU), as well as Polyolefin stretch and barrier films. This makes it ideal for a wide range of flexographic printing applications including hygiene, collation shrink and outdoor surface applications, in line with general industry needs.
Flint Group continues its efforts to promote breakthrough technologies, such as CADEL DEINKING, and ensure its ink ranges complement the work of CADEL in changing the game in plastic packaging recycling.
Collaboration is key
Flint Group has innovation in its DNA and is resolute about ensuring that its inks and coatings support the development of critical recycling infrastructure and the circular economy for packaging around the world. We know, however, we cannot work in isolation and a collaborative effort is needed by all parts of the print and packaging value chain to solve the industry’s challenges. Flint Group is seeking to build sustainable partnerships every single day to support its sustainability vision “To support packaging markets with responsibly built products and sustainable solutions designed for circular economies.”
To find out more about how Flint Group can support the development of the circular economy for packaging, please visit www.flintgrp.com
- The Future of Packaging Printing to 2027 Report 2022, Smithers
- The latest CEFLEX D4ACE Guidelines can be found here: https://guidelines.ceflex.eu/
- Results reported in the REFLEX Project study, 2016 https://ceflex.eu/public_downloads/REFLEX-Summary-report-Final-report-November2016.pdf
- To find out more about CADEL DEINKING technology, please visit cadeldeinking.com
- To read the CEFLEX report in full, please visit https://ceflex.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/CEFLEX_Presentation_Q4-2020_website-update_1October20.pdf