Flexible packaging represents the majority of packaging used globally, yet historically has not been proportionally recycled. The industry in Europe has come together to develop new guidelines to work towards the goal of a circular economy which can be broken down into the following 5 steps:
- Drive Collection of ALL flexible packaging for sorting and recycling.
- Sort and Recycle the suitable mono-material fractions.
- Redesign multi-material flexible packaging to mono-materials with existing recycling streams where possible.
- Identify Solutions and develop capabilities to sort and recycle the remaining fractions.
- End Markets for all recycled flexible packaging materials.
CEFLEX is the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging initiative in Europe, which has been making strides in increasing sustainability within the industry. Graham Houlder, the Project Coordinator, explains that while seemingly simplistic, the scale of collecting, sorting, and recycling adds complexity to developing a more circular future. Furthermore, there will have to be efforts to redesign or develop alternatives to multi-material flexible packaging which has traditionally been difficult to fully recycle in its entirety.
Houlder says, “We have to find and develop end markets that are sustainable, and that the potential users of these materials are not only willing but want to use them because they represent a sustainable business choice for them. So, rather than try and force the use of recycled materials, recycled plastics, by mandatory recycled content, we would much prefer to see these materials being pulled by the potential users of these materials. That way we don’t disturb the natural economics of plastic markets.”
A key aim of the guidelines is to produce higher-quality recycled materials so that they can then be kept in the economy using sustainable end markets. Furthermore, post-use collection and processing of materials must be improved on with increased functionality that can benefit the environment rather than burden it.
Plasma gasification is one promising alternative currently being explored as a way to turn waste into environmentally safe outputs. The goal of plasma gasification is to break down organic materials to their basic elements and then recover them as useful gas products or metals. The desired gaseous product is known as syngas, which can be used as a chemical feedstock to produce hydrocarbons, biofuels, and/or plastics. Syngas can also be used directly as a clean burning fuel to produce electricity. It is estimated that about 15% to 20% of our energy needs can be met using plasma gasification, and enacting this strategy would allow waste to be mined from existing landfills, restoring land for better uses.
By researching and investing in creative solutions like plasma gasification, circular economy sustainability is possible. Innovation must go beyond the generic “reduce, reuse, recycle” motto, and the packaging industry as a whole should encourage new initiatives whenever possible.