Flexible plastic packaging continues to grow as a material of demand. Between the years 2010 and 2014 global demand for flexible packaging grew 56 percent. In the U.S., flexible packaging is the fastest growing and second largest segment within the packaging industry.
While we refer to flexible packaging as whole, the types of resins, polymers and formats used to create flexible packaging varies widely. This complexity, created by using one or more types of polymers to create flexible packaging, challenges the efficient collection, separation, recycling and resale of this material. While new innovations and systems have been created to address single polymer materials, limited options for the end-of-life management of multi-materials flexible film packaging continues to challenge these types of packages.
Mono-material flexible packaging uses one polymer only--most often polyethylene. Commonly found in carrier bags, tissue wrappers and self-sealed food storage bags, these can currently be collected and recycled through the US at store-drop-off center, or in limited municipal curbside collection programs.
Multi-material flexible packaging is composed of two or more materials joined together with adhesive or wax. By layering different materials together manufacturers can create a package with unique barrier and mechanical properties. Additionally, multi-material films are typically thinner and lighter than single (mono) material equivalents. This helps reduce demand for resources required to produce and transport packaging--including reduced greenhouse gases. Because of these advantages, in addition to cost savings, when compared to rigid plastics multi-material flexible packaging, specifically food pouches, is anticipated to be one of the fastest growing packaging formats over the next few years. However, their nature as lightweight and multi-material structures is exactly what complicates their ability for recovery, and in particular, their suitability for mechanical recycling.
Current compositions of multi-material flexible packaging vary from three layers up to nine. Because there is no standard composition, and different resins are utilized across the various layers, there is no existing program anywhere across the globe to provide for the public recovery of these materials. With an estimated 40 billion packages produced from multi-material films annually in the U.S., finding solutions to collect, sort and recover these materials is becoming of increasing interest to packaging and waste communities, as well as, consumers across the globe.
By collecting and highlighting global efforts to advance recovery options for multi-material flexible packaging, it is our aim to advance the collective understanding, and shared best practices, towards the goal of creating a sustainable solution for the management of multi-material flexible packaging at their end of life.