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The next, crucial stage in the technical work will consist in optimising recycling processes to attain an economical balance between added cost and higher value of the output polymer. This workstream project expects to culminate in recommending new sorting specifications to deliver a viable quality and quantity of recyclate for identified new end markets. As Graham Houlder reminds the stakeholders, “A circular economy means that we need to find economically and environmentally viable solutions for all flexible packaging placed on the market - not just the easy to recycle formats.”

Another important aspect of the economics of the circular economy is consumer buy-in. What if the big brands and retailers use their direct relationship with consumers, e.g. to encourage them to accept products with reduced transparency, or to regard recycled plastic as a premium worth paying for?

A sound economic case is at the basis of every strand of the initiative. “Because CEFLEX will only recommend technical solutions with a robust business case for investment in implementation, we are working diligently to develop the EcoChain tool for a combined environmental and financial cost of any process,” Dana revealed. “This belongs to the end of a lifecycle of any flexible packaging. Once fully developed and beta tested, this tool will not only help CEFLEX understand and further recommend those technologies and processes which will indeed enable enhanced value of flexible packaging in a circular economy, but it can also be used by the 28 EU country EPR systems to understand the full costs and impacts of recycling flexible packaging in their country and where more investment is needed.”

Everyone is involved

At the end of a most rewarding day my enduring impression was that CEFLEX is dependent above all on collective buy-in. Within the value chain everyone needs to invest: chemical companies in extending the functionality of existing polymers; converters in monopolymer solutions; waste management in new sorting and recycling infrastructure; and brand owners may have to swallow some temporary loss of margin. The onus is also on stakeholders to compromise where necessary. Brand owners, for instance, may have to accept reduced functionality in the short term in some respects as a reasonable price for more PCR. One of the major contributions of CEFLEX is that the critical mass of its stakeholder base and the rigour of its plan provide a strong degree of confidence in the direction of the market and therefore in ROI. Meanwhile, the trust and transparency building among the stakeholders can only fuel the impetus for compromise.

However, the creation of a circular economy is contingent on wider still cooperation. Within the value chain, retailers have an important role to play – and are notable in their under-representation at the CEFLEX table. Success will also be hugely reliant on external stakeholders. Flexible packaging is currently not even collected separately in a third of EU countries. This has to change, and the value chain is not in a position to make it happen unilaterally. Regulators need to work urgently on harmonisation of infrastructure and standards. Society as a whole must come together to build the circular economy. CEFLEX has set us a laudable example to follow.