Recycled Content and Recycling High Barrier Soft Plastic Packaging for Reuse

Recycled Content in Packaging

1. What is “Recycled Content” in packaging?

Recycled content in plastic packaging is when non-virgin materials have been used to construct a new packaging product.

When using recycled content in packaging, product protection is always the key focus. For this reason, it can be difficult to use recycled content in large percentages, especially in thin packaging films/soft plastics.
Zero Co Recycled Content Packaging (1)
O F Pack can offer recycled content packaging for non-food contact applications in percentages up to 65%.
When we speak about recycling and recycled-content, we can refer to materials coming from three primary sources- post-manufacture/industrial, pre-consumer, and post-consumer.

It is important that we recognise what distinguishes these categories from one another, in order to properly understand soft plastic recycling and work towards the best outcomes for recycled content, and the limitations in being able to get these resources back into packaging.

Post Manufacture/Industrial

Face Mask Waste
During the initial packaging manufacturing process, there are various bits of waste material that cannot be used at the time. While some places send this waste to landfill, others recycle this back into polymer resin to be used again.

This content includes materials such as:
– Machine set-up film waste
– Plastic material trim sections/offcuts
– Mis-blown packaging films

Post-manufacture/industrial plastic waste content is typically high-quality, and is often comprised of a single plastic type (not different types of plastics laminated together)- making them easy to recycle. This is the main type of recycled content we see used in packaging on the market at present, such as recycled content PET (water of soft drink bottles) or recycled content HDPE bottles (shampoos etc.).

Some of this material comes from packaging manufacturers themselves at the source, and is re-used back into packaging right away.
Other materials must be purchased from other industries, such as the medical industry as a good example. This purchased recycled content is key for sustainability practises and ensuring that good quality materials that may not be used in other industries can be put to use for packaging.

The majority of post-manufacture/industrial plastic waste was sent to landfill in the past, however is now being utilised for putting recycled content back into packaging.

Pre- Consumer

Pre-consumer plastic pellets
Some people are not aware that many flexible packaging formats or soft plastic pouches and bags actually use multiple types of plastic laminated together to create the perfect specification for food product protection. In comparison to rigid containers that can use just one plastic type (due to the overall greater thickness and amount of plastic used per container), these different layers of various plastic types can make it difficult to recycle these products.

Flexible packaging like this is usually ordered in large quantities by brand owners, and then used as needed over the span of a few weeks/months to pack products. Sometimes however, packaging that has already been printed, laminated, and formed into the final packaging product cannot be used to pack product.

This can be due reasons such as:
– Updated labelling or incorrect product information.
– Deleted/discontinued product lines.
– Packaging waste from setting up the production line and/or packaging lost in the packing process (wrong sealing or filling quantities etc.).

Due to the multiple plastic types used, this packaging is typically sent to landfill. However, due to the clean nature of these products in comparison to post-consumer waste, we see companies like O F Pack working on solutions that would allow recycling of these multi-laminate structures.

Post-Consumer

This is when packaging products are at their end of life, and are usually sent either to landfill, kerbside recycling (for rigid containers), or to store drop-off locations (for recycling certain types of soft plastic packaging).
Soft plastics that are returned to store are sorted and distributed to plastic recyclers and end-users of these resources, typically to be used in combination with other commodities to create new products.

These products are typically like the following:
– Outdoor plastic products (such as decking, bench seats and tables, posts, signage etc.)
– Road Surfaces (plastics are mixed with bitumen)

Due to the level of contamination present with end-consumer waste, it cannot typically be used for food-contact applications when recycled. Some companies have managed to get post-consumer rigid plastics in high percentages back into bottles with specialised sanitising machinery and processes. However this is not wide-spread.

The varying levels of different plastic types mixed together in soft plastic recycling streams, in conjunction with food contamination, also makes it difficult to recycle and re-use post-consumer waste in large percentages (especially back into packaging!).

Which Type of Recycled Content is best?

Using any type of recycled content back into packaging is a great achievement, as this helps divert soft plastics from landfill throughout the supply chain. Vast volumes of plastic materials are discarded before packaging ever reaches the consumer, and it is vital that these materials be recycled too.

The ultimate goal for the future is to utilise vast majorities of Post-Consumer waste back into packaging, while ensuring products remain protected and safe for consumption. While this is a challenge for the industry, it will be achievable in the near future with more recycle-friendly flexible packaging being introduced and problematic plastics being removed from packaging altogether.

2. Why do we use multiple plastic types for packaging?

Flexible Packaging

Packaging Layers
Until recently, the use of multiple plastic types for flexible packaging has been necessary for many products, in order to provide the chemical and physical protection needed for optimal shelf life and reduced food waste.

Different plastics have different properties, and are used in various combinations to fit the protection required- one type of plastic on its own rarely provides an adequate packaging function for flexible packaging.

For instance, aluminium provides a very high chemical barrier to oxygen and moisture and is utilised in retort packaging or for highly sensitive products like milk powder to ensure products remain protected. However, aluminium in flexible packaging is only 7 microns thick and has poor physical/puncture resistance, so we require alternative materials such as Nylon to protect the aluminium from cracking (as Nylon has great puncture resistance).

Rigid Containers

Rigid containers (such as PET bottles) are obviously much thicker and use greater amounts of plastic, allowing for single plastic type packaging to be used in many rigid applications. It is important to note however, products like tin cans and cardboard cartons sometimes utilise plastics for lining to increase shelf life and/or stop packed products from leaching into the rigid container itself.

Long-life milk and juice cartons that you see on the supermarket shelf are made from several layers of plastic, paper, and even aluminium and are just as difficult to recycle as flexible plastic packaging!

3. Why are soft/flexible packaging products difficult to recycle?

Multiple Materials

The ‘multi-laminate’ materials that provide the right product protection are also one of the hurdles that make it difficult to reclaim and recycle flexible packaging. Due to the difficulty in separating out separate materials that have been adhered together, much of the flexible (or soft-plastic) packaging that we use every day ends up in landfill.

While eco-conscious brands (like Brookfarm, above) are switching to simpler packaging alternatives that are easier to recycle, we still need a solution to divert existing multi-laminate, mixed plastic packaging from landfill and put it back into new products.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune 1
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

Recycling Infrastructure

Another thing that makes soft/flexible packaging difficult to recycle is issues with moving soft plastic through our mechanical recycling infrastructure. Even if flexible packaging is made of a single material, collecting this material in our co-mingled recycling bins and processing it along with rigid containers is difficult. Flexible plastics tend to get stuck in the machinery of standard Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs), which is why drop-off collections for soft plastics have instead become the option.

Contamination

Contaminated Plastic
As mentioned previously, it is difficult to get rid of contamination from post-consumer waste in order to recycle it into new products. Not only does this pose a food contamination risk in comparison to virgin materials, but it also makes the manufacturing process difficult and creates a poorer quality feedstock. Oils and other organic matter, in addition to residual inks and adhesives within post-consumer products affect the polymer’s ability to be re-melted and formed into new packaging material. These contaminates often creates bubbles and imperfections and can reduce the strength of the recycled material. Work still needs to be done in order to clean waste plastic, and it is difficult to recycle this content back into flexible films due to the thin gauge of material we require. But we’ll have a solution soon!  

4. The solution for multi-laminate packaging?

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During the first half of 2021, O F Pack worked in collaboration with Close the Loop on a recycling trial that took multi-laminate pouch packaging destined for landfill and recovered it as a resource. By filtering out most of the Metalised Polyester [MetPET] along with other contaminates (like adhesive), we were left with a batch of plastic pellets made from recycled pre-consumer pouch packaging that consisted of mostly Polyethylene [PE] and Polypropylene [PP].

These pellets were mixed with 30% of virgin material, to go through a film blowing process and create a high recycled content packaging film ideal for use in horticulture product packaging.

We’re still working on getting post-consumer mixed plastic pellets to create a similar film, and are confident that soon we’ll have a positive result!
For more information on recycled content, please get in touch with us today.