The flexible packaging value chain, in addition to continuing work on enhancing mechanical recycling processes, is also working on commercialising chemical recycling. In this interview, Sirt Mellema, CEO of Fuenix Ecogy Group, shares his insights on how advanced chemical recycling can support the needs of the flexible packaging sector and helps us understand the current challenges, and future trends.

Fuenix oven section-1

Fuenix oven section-1

Which factors help determine the selection of chemical recycling versus mechanical recycling, and how?

Well, I fully agree with the statement that both technologies are needed to reach and fulfil the legal EU plastic packaging recycling targets overall. In case of more difficult to recycle materials, advanced chemical recycling is definitely a technology, which can be used as an add-on and I see this evolving over time as the recycling targets increase.

There are a couple of considerations to determine the appropriate recycling technology. We need to look at material recovery, the associated CO2 footprint, and ultimately, about how to completely close the loop for any type of plastic packaging to be recycled to be used again, making it completely circular. And as long as we have advanced packaging materials where performance is required – which under the current design possibilities will be fulfilled with multi-layer structures – it will be a challenge to recycle everything. But also, there I see­ – and that’s, of course, the other topic – design for recycling or making next generation of advanced multi-layer barrier type of packaging helping to make them more recyclable. You know, we are keeping a close watch on what is going on in the packaging industry and when visiting universities, I’ve come across interesting R&D activities. For example, multi-layer structures, which can be manipulated in such a way that they are relatively easier to de-laminate. Though easier said than implemented, I do see many trends and initiatives in this direction. Nevertheless, I would say that in the short to mid-term and beyond, advanced chemical recycling solutions will be a relevant factor to close that gap.

Indeed, it is important to look at the short to mid-term since we are so close to the 2025 and 2030 recycling targets, right?

Yes, absolutely! And one thing to add here is about the targets related to circular food packaging materials. Particularly for this application, fulfilling all the associated requirements is very challenging with mechanical recycling and will require the support of advanced chemical recycling solutions.

While there is more recognition for its role in enabling a circular economy, what, according to you, are the main barriers to scaling up chemical recycling?

So, in general, the value chain and the downstream partners need to identify the limitations of the alternatives to fossil-based raw materials like naphtha. And that’s partly a journey of understanding where those limits are in combination with additional technologies for purifying pyrolysis-based intermediates into the equivalent of fossil-based feedstocks. So for that, our approach has been to partner with active downstream players in order to investigate and define that route and journey. There were, in the beginning, quite a lot of unknowns and I think that it has been a continuous process over the last 10 years to address these unknowns and translate them into intermediate targets. And I also foresee that in the coming five-plus years, we will see further improvement.

A similar approach is needed for flexible packaging, typically, multi-layer structures and those with coating formulations that may contain undesirable chemicals or additives. So, we have connected to organisations like CEFLEX and work with them in order to better understand the current situation and translate the unknowns into desired outputs. Here, too, I’m very confident that if we – across the value chain – understand and participate in developing this approach, then we will be able to efficiently process flexible packaging material into a circular feedstock with advanced chemical recycling technologies.

It will be interesting to see how this approach will be developed going forward. Now, if we talk in terms of numbers and actual volume, do you see a mismatch between demand and supply?

I would say there’s definitely a mismatch between demand and supply at the moment, especially when it comes to producing circular packaging materials, or more specifically, producing circular ethylene. With all the initiatives announced, there’s definitely a build-up of capabilities for advanced chemical recycling. The interest is truly global and I think the critical mass of the brand owners asking for circular solutions is there. The major petrochemical companies are quite active in this space. It will definitely require time and also partnerships with larger industry players because capacity building is capital intensive. However, I believe that with a couple of the most promising technologies we’ll be able to get to substantial scale – and by substantial, I mean production in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 tonnes of circular feedstocks per unit. If the industry will get to that level – and my expectation is that it will in the next two to five years – then we will definitely see the next phase, where based on those technologies, larger-scale operations will be developed across the globe.

The next part – and that’s also now under development – is regarding the availability of end-of-life plastics for higher volume advanced chemical recycling units. Here, my personal belief is that the end-of-life plastics, which currently are incinerated on a pretty large scale for energy recovery – but still emitting CO2 into the environment – is an outlet, which, over a period of time, will no longer be a viable solution. This will make waste feedstocks available for circular solutions and when that happens, then yes, there will be a balance between supply and demand.

Based on the current dynamics & future needs, how do you think the flexible packaging recycling trends will evolve in the next five to ten years? What will be the impact on chemical recycling?

Well, if we start with the category of difficult-to-recycle material, then definitely that is applicable for an important proportion of the flexible packaging waste streams. The way it is now approached, I do see initiatives – such as CEFLEX – to further study the use of materials coming from flexible packaging waste. It requires effort but with dedicated focus, I truly believe that we will be able to find solutions using advanced chemical recycling. For me, it depends on the collection, sorting, and pre-treatment of the materials in the right way. If that is done, I believe, that with some effort you can already recycle pre-sorted, pre-treated flexible packaging waste material using existing technologies.

And overall, to make 100% circular and CO2 neutral packaging will require the effort and the contribution of mechanical recycling, advanced chemical recycling – in its different forms – and also, alternative feedstocks like bio-based feedstocks, etc.

Can you help us identify the future growth areas?

I think if we can interact with the flexible packaging producers to understand their requirements and improve design for recyclability from an advanced chemical recycling perspective, I definitely see more growth coming in. Since this is new for us – at least as advanced chemical recyclers – it would definitely require some further study. But I see that the common understanding is shared and from that aspect, the industry is willing to improve itself. This means designing for recyclability, from this perspective, while still maintaining the performance requirements of the flexible packaging itself. Based on other examples we’ve seen, for example, the mono-material packaging solutions, where also packaging producers worked together to improve the design, I’m confident that the same is possible for other types of flexible packaging.

Concerning value chain collaborations, how can converters, brands, and recyclers work together to achieve the best impact?

What I observe is that, due to this huge pressure from both society and governments, there is definitely the understanding that close cooperation is a must. In addition to the brand owners, who are pushing for better and sustainable packaging, for me, the connection to the end-users is also very vital. Efforts are needed to organize the collection and pre-sorting of end-of-life packaging waste – and it’s different for the different packaging types – in a more efficient way.

Fortunately, we see now, certain initiatives, where larger grocery chains in Germany, for instance, are taking initiative and ownership of their waste streams. And I see the same thing in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, and others as well. This is a very crucial step – and also a very simple one – because you can already collect and separate the packaging waste at the source. In today’s developed societies, waste management companies have been tasked to collect all the waste from communities, sort them and make them ready for reuse. They have been looking at mechanical recycling as their only outlet so far and that is understandable since there was no alternative or limited alternatives until now. It will require a re-orientation within the value chain to take into account advanced recycling technologies as well. This will help us, as an industry, to minimise or eliminate waste in the whole cycle and enable circular packaging materials