ExxonMobil, Cyclyx International, Sealed Air, and Ahold Delhaize USA are aspiring to launch the first circular food packaging proof of concept for advanced recycling in the United States, with the process set to be evaluated for scale and recycle one billion pounds of plastic waste by the end of 2026.

A successful demo saw plastic waste collected from select grocery stores by Food Lion, an Ahold Delhaize USA brand. Agilyx Corporation and ExxonMobil’s joint venture, Cyclyx, sorted and pre-processed the collected waste and delivered it to ExxonMobil’s facility in Baytown, Texas.

Plastic waste was then broken down into its molecular building blocks with ExxonMobil’s Exxtend advanced recycling technology. A mass balance approach apparently produced new polymers – which are certified by ISCC PLUS as being circular – to be turned into food-grade packaging.

From there, Sealed Air would convert the polyethylene into food-grade flexible film to package fresh poultry from Nature’s Promise.

Now it is hoped that a fully expanded version of this process could increase ExxonMobil’s annual advanced recycling capacity to 500,000 metric tons worldwide by the end of 2026.

“This project helps demonstrate how Exxtend technology can widen the range of plastic materials that can be recycled while delivering certified-circular polymers with the critical performance attributes of virgin plastic,” said Dan Moore, vice president of Polyethylene, ExxonMobil. “Advanced recycling is making the impossible possible and is an important enabler to support a circular economy.

“The technology provides a reliable source to attribute to high-performance, certified-circular polymers. The resulting polymers, such as Exceed S, Exceed XP, Exceed and Enable performance polyethylene (PE), have the characteristics of virgin resins, which is critical for food-grade packaging.”

“Across Ahold Delhaize USA companies, we have ambitious goals around recyclable and reusable packaging,” said Adam Springer, manager of Product Sustainability at Ahold Delhaize USA. “Based on the initial pilot, we’re optimistic about being able to leverage this process at additional scale and look forward to exploring it further as part of this collaboration.”

“The interface between the Food Lion stores and the Baytown facility was critical and required an innovative approach to feedstock management,” continued Joe Vaillancourt, CEO of Cyclyx. “Part of our process is to identify the chemical composition of the waste plastics we receive. This allows us to create custom blends of post-use plastic feedstock that are tailored to the specifications required for advanced recycling.”

“By collaborating with suppliers and customers, we were able to identify, design, and commercialize an innovative flexible packaging solution which supports circularity,” said Ron Cotterman, vice president of Global Corporate Affairs at Sealed Air.

Speaking to Packaging Europe last year, Brightmark CEO Bob Powell warned that current advanced recycling technology cannot infinitely recycle plastics, as the material will eventually break down. He also noted the inequality between supply and demand in the sector that is slowing the implementation of recycled plastics into flexible packaging applications, caused in part by contaminated plastic waste streams.

In Europe, increasing capacity to satisfy market demand and convincing stakeholders to accept and invest in chemical recycling are challenges to its expansion, according to Chemical Recycling Europe’s new secretary general, John Sewell.

However, industrial players in the packaging industry are making moves to embrace polymers sourced from advanced recycling; for example, Amcor previously signed a five-year deal with ExxonMobil for an increasing supply of its certified circular recycled polyethylene.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:

McDonald’s Director of Sustainability in Europe on the company’s approach to packaging sustainability

McKinsey on whether or not on-pack sustainability claims affect consumer spending

Perspectives from industry-leading experts on the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive revisions

A deep dive into the most important packaging sustainability trends and solutions