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Collecting flexible packaging is key for a circular economy because it sources the feedstock for future sustainable products and CEFLEX, an industry-led project, thinks minor adjustments to Europe’s existing waste systems can help send more of these soft plastics where they need to go.
Around 26 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated in Europe each year with just under a third of that collected for recycling – it’s even less for flexible packaging where around 17% is transformed into a new raw material.
“Most flexible packaging in Europe is collected through the residual general waste stream, but only some of it is captured in separate collection schemes,” said Michael Minch-Dixon, who works on collection at the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) project, a collaboration of over 170 European companies, associations and organizations representing the entire value chain of flexible packaging.
“We estimate that about 5.6 million tonnes per year of consumer flexible packaging is placed on the market. This includes plastic, paper and aluminum. Approximately 60% of this is mono material packaging to be sorted into recycling streams. These significant volumes of material need to be collected for sorting as we move to the circular economy – and collection is the key point where it moves from the consumer into a formal waste collection system” says Michael.
In a recent position statement, CEFLEX stakeholders agreed that 100% of flexible packaging must be targeted for collection and sorting, including on-the-go packaging. ‘Separate collection of flexible packaging at source is preferred or alternatively combined with other packaging, including rigid plastics, metal and beverage cartons’ states the position.
“Waste needs to be made available for sorting in a way that maximizes recycling and material returned to the economy. Separately collected material tends to be easier to sort, cheaper to recycle and helps maximize quality” adds Minch-Dixon. “We need to make this easy, convenient and effective for consumers and sorters with a recognizable and harmonized approach across Europe.” Michael continues to explain there are also higher participation rates from society when there is kerbside collection, rather than a drop-off system.
Another element that should be harmonized according to CEFLEX is that paper and plastic flexible packaging is not collected together. “Whilst these two materials can, and are, sorted together, experience shows that it’s not easy and the contamination levels of both the paper and plastic bales are higher where sorting plants processes these together,” Michael says.
A relatively ‘quick win’ to boost circularity?
“Separate collection can and is happening – and it doesn’t have to cost the Earth, as the systems are broadly already in place,” states Michael. According to CEFLEX, consumer flexible packaging is being separately collected in at least 18 EU countries and post sorting of municipal solid waste is extending the quantity of material targeted for sorting in key countries.
An entire spectrum of collection strategies, like deposit schemes for bottles for example, deployed across Europe exist and provide opportunities to collect more, better. But Michael believes scaling up separate collection would see Europe “make significant strides towards circularity” of flexible packaging with only minor adjustments to existing infrastructure and investment.
In Belgium, 95% of all household packaging was collected in 2020 through Fost Plus. Their ‘New Blue Bag’ of PMD mixed recyclables collected an additional 90,000 tonnes of extra packaging annually that, until recently, still ended up in the residual waste. An average of 8 kilograms of additional PMD is now collected per person.
Even when flexible packaging is not separately collected meaningful progress can be made. “In countries like Spain and The Netherlands there are examples of wind sifters and other sorting equipment being used to extract plastic packaging from the waste stream going into incinerators. This enables the incinerator to process greater volumes of material and also an opportunity for the packaging to re-enter the circular economy. Material can then go into a sorting plant and be baled into relevant fractions,” he outlines.
“We have the understanding of the technologies, and they are operating at scale, so we just have to replicate best practice,” said Michael. “What we need to do is work on the business case for circularity on a national basis because each country has a different collection strategy.”
Putting the pieces into practice
CEFLEX suggests that collection systems have good potential to evolve – relatively quickly and easily compared to other end of life systems – to give far more access to raw materials for sorting and recycling. For example, CEFLEX’s recommendations would not require a new fleet of trucks to start doing additional rounds or introducing dedicated containers and end collecting flexibles and paper together.
Separate collection scheme costs vary, but recent analysis by Suez commissioned by CEFLEX looked at real world data and put the cost of collection between €100–250 per tonne and a CO2e footprint of between 30–50kg CO2 per tonne in northern European countries.
The main economic challenge facing widespread adoption of separate collection is found further up the value chain, where sorting and recycling facilities need the right infrastructure to incentivize the right collection of flexible packaging.
CEFLEX hopes their economic analysis and position paper can generate greater investor confidence in the right circular solutions. “The economics for recycling of flexible packaging is, by and large, not there yet. For example, if you want to sort out a non-LDPE (low-density polyethylene) flexible packaging and create a mixed plastic bale, you’re going to have to pay at least €200 a tonne,” Michael said. “But economic opportunities and environmental benefits are within reach; and a range of political and market forces are giving added momentum to the circular economy of flexible packaging.”
One systemic piece of the puzzle is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). “Recycling flexible packaging needs the support of EPR schemes to bridge the difference between returning materials to the circular economy and what people are currently willing to pay for these products. Evolving the EPR system to incentivize better design as well as drive better sorting. Sorted bales currently have a wide range of values from +100 euro for very high-quality bales of municipally collected waste to -200€ for mixed plastics,” outlines Minch-Dixon.
“But the bottom line is: if it isn’t collected, then we cannot make progress throughout the system. As we move to circularity and more ambitious recycling targets, there’s an additional incentive to put more thought into the collection, sorting and recycling of flexible packaging.”
“Out of these three steps, we can and should be making light work of progress through separate collection to capture resources in the best way possible,” says Michael.