Paying the price to recycle premium packaging

Some of the highest performing packaging is the most difficult to recycle. Companies who want to continue selling it are now having to organise the recycling of their used packaging, to ensure compatibility with a circular economy. Nestlé is collaborating with Enval, a start-up, to scale up a sophisticated new technology for recycling laminates. They recently announced that it is ready for installation in Mexico. Suppliers of multilayer carton packaging, used for a range of beverages, opened a dedicated recycling plant in Germany in 2021 with a current capacity of 18,100 tonnes. These are examples of companies committing to the recycling of their own products, but is it a scalable model for the future?

The EU’s requirement that all packaging shall be recyclable by 2030, together with consumer pressure, has brought upheaval to the world of packaging. Aluminium foil is a key part of high performing multilayer packaging as it keeps out oxygen, moisture and light. It is used in both flexible and rigid packaging together with a range of plastic and carton layers. But such multilayer packaging is the hardest to recycle as it is difficult to separate the thin layers of different materials, which is the first step of the recycling process.

Manufacturers are busy simplifying their multilayers, and last year I reported that aluminium foil layers in plastic laminates are being replaced by an oxide coating or a thin layer of a specialist polymer. Different forms or grades of the same polymer are taking the place of multilayers of different polymers so that the whole laminate, including the coating, can be accepted by conventional sorting and recycling facilities. No separation of the layers is required. However, a reduction in shelf-life may be the price to pay. The beverage carton producers are also trying to simplify their packaging. They have announced new developments which they claim remove the need for the aluminium layer. 

But these companies are not yet prepared to admit that conventional high performing packaging is ready for the reduced shelf. And so they are investing in new technology to show that it is recyclable. The Enval technology uses microwaves to liquify the aluminium layer and separate it from the other layers. The mixed plastics are then chemically recycled back to new polymers and the aluminium can be recycled conventionally.   The Palurec plant in Germany, which is dedicated to multilayer cartons, uses a multistage washing and cyclone separation process to separate the layers of carton, aluminium, and polyethylene so each can be recycled in a conventional facility. 

But these technologies must be expensive to build and operate, so it is difficult to see how they will be replicated throughout the multiple countries where this packaging is sold. Companies could be planning to set up a collection infrastructure with transport system to a central separation and recycling facility. Or perhaps they think that local authorities will take up the technology once they have demonstrated it.  But that will depend on the future for laminated packaging and how it is classified in upcoming regulation. 

The EU is currently reviewing its Packaging Directive. Proposals for an enforceable definition of ‘recyclable’ are thought to be likely. Such a definition may be based on the maximum number or weight of different materials allowed in a package. In such a scenario, beverage cartons are at a disadvantage, as the carton layer needs additional materials for it to be impervious to liquids, whereas plastic laminates are naturally hydrophobic. But cartons are attractive to brand owners. Many of them are committed to using less plastic, therefore the renewable nature of the carton, the majority component, is appealing. They can also source bioplastic to replace the thin polymer layer and the cap. 

So, the European Commission will have different viewpoints to reconcile when it comes to defining the term ‘recyclable’. Only then will we know if conventional laminate packaging with an aluminium foil layer, has passed its sell-by-date.

Published: 24 June 22

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