The diverse range of flexible packaging products has made it hard to find the best circular path for some of society’s trickiest waste streams, but a clearer way forward is starting to emerge for the industry. Steve Gillman speaks to Dana Mosora, workstream lead at the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) project, about why the sector is now getting behind a strategy that backs both chemical and mechanical recycling.

The growing demand for sustainable production has seen the flexible packaging industry turn towards the circular economy to deliver environmental improvements without compromising on the functionality of its products – but developing the necessary solutions has not been so straightforward.

According to CEFLEX’s Dana Mosora there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution considering the diversity and scale of the industry, but it has now become clear that any path forward must include both mechanical and chemical recycling technologies.

CEFLEX is a European consortium of over 170 businesses, researchers and non-profits developing circular economy guidelines for the flexible packaging industry and they concluded that this requires a complementary mix of mechanical and chemical recycling technologies working together.

“The objective is to bring materials back into the economy at the highest value possible,” says Dana. “More mechanical recycling can enable higher value materials in Europe, but as much as we expand this there will always be a need for innovations that remake polymers.”

Mechanical recycling in Europe is already delivering robust secondary materials for many applications in film, injection moulding and compression moulding and, with the newly developed ‘Quality recycling Process’ by CEFLEX, higher quality polymers can be delivered for new demanding applications for non-food flexible packaging.  However, other regulated and more demanding applications like food and pharmaceuticals have struggled to find recycled materials with properties that match virgin feedstocks.

“Chemical recycling is today the only technology which is remaking polymers and therefore we can have recycled polymers with the right material quality for food contact,” says Dana.

A key part of CEFLEX’s latest position on the circular economy is to get the industry’s value chains behind all physical and chemical recycling solutions, from mechanical recycling, dissolution and solvent depolymerisation to pyrolysis. While most chemical recycling projects are still in an R&D phase, the consortium predicts that if there was industry-wide support for these new solutions it could eventually create the required supply of circular materials that mechanical processes cannot deliver. CEFLEX estimates pyrolysis alone could offer 1.5 million tons of recycling capacity in Europe by 2025.

Dana explains that CEFLEX’s new position is not about defining the exact amount of physical (mechanical and dissolution) or chemical recycling needed to achieve the circular economy for flexible packaging, but more about sending a market signal to speed up the sustainable transition for the industry.

“We need to enable these solutions to develop as fast as possible,” she says, adding that this is about incentivizing companies to build more mechanical recycling infrastructure and funding additional research into chemical recycling. “It’s about providing the security and incentivizing companies to make the right investments.”

Regulation roadblocks to overcome

Another reason why CEFLEX released its circular economy position now is to help shape future EU policies. The European Commission is currently reviewing the EU’s packaging and packaging waste directive (PPWD) – a set of rules aimed at reducing the industry’s environmental impact and harmonizing national infrastructure.

Dana explains that it is crucial the EU keeps a “technologically agnostic approach” in order to give all recycling solutions a chance to contribute to creating a circular economy for flexible packaging, as well as preventing the industry going down the wrong path.

CEFLEX’s stakeholders are working towards a 2025 goal to establish collection, sorting and reprocessing infrastructure for post-consumer flexible packaging across Europe. That means they need to start scaling circular solutions as soon as possible, but that could be a risk without knowing what the EU’s legislative landscape might look like in a few years – and any misstep could not only be costly endeavour, but also hold back the sector’s shift towards the circular economy.

“We need to align legislation and industry to move faster because we must act now,” says Dana.

The risk of a legislative misalignment originates from environmental fears that focusing too much on chemical recycling could incentivize a business-as-usual approach, which could then see flexible packaging waste streams remain linear. The EU executive could interpret this as a threat to its new Circular Economy Action Plan, which hopes to halve municipal waste by 2030 with new supporting targets to reduce packaging waste, and limit some recycling solutions.

Dana understands these concerns but says CEFLEX’s latest position for flexible packaging is not about achieving the circular economy with mechanical and chemical recycling alone, but rather keeping these solutions in the mix.

“The very first thing the industry has to do, and it is doing it, is design products with recycling in mind,” she says, adding that this will only be achieved by also enabling the right infrastructure for collection, sorting and processing plastic packaging waste.

Collaboration key to scale

If the industry and policymakers both back CEFLEX’s mix of chemical and mechanical recycling, as well as product redesign, it could go a long way in scaling up the circular economy for flexible packaging. And according to Dana, aligning the industry’s stakeholders behind a shared vision will remain one of the most essential factors in finding the most successful path forward.

“Together we have moved towards the circular economy faster than we had imagined when it all started a few years ago,” she says, adding that CEFLEX provides the platform to let its members learn from each other and speed up the adoption of solutions.

The coronavirus pandemic has also added more momentum on developing circular solutions together after home deliveries sparked a greater demand for flexible packaging and saw the industry’s desire to curb their waste streams grow. “We’ve seen so many examples of positive redesign for packaging to become recyclable in the last six to nine months,” says Dana.

A crisis often sparks disruptive innovation and Dana hopes CEFLEX stakeholders’ effort to double-down on sustainability will eventually see the “many possible solutions” emerge to create a circular economy for the industry.

“That’s also why it’s so important to keep the definition of recycling open, because innovation will continue to bring to us new solutions – and we have to stimulate innovation,” she concludes.