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Flexible laminates within the circular economy

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Abstract

This report focusses on flexible laminated packages that are composed out of multiple polymer types and their impact on the recycling chains. Approximately 3-4% of the packaging products used in Europe is a laminated flexible packaging film. By nature, these films are either more difficult to recycle than mono-material packaging products, or even impossible to recycle. In the Netherlands roughly 65% of the laminated flexibles are discarded with the mixed municipal solid waste and 35% are collected in separate collection schemes for lightweight packaging wastes. After sorting the laminates are distributed over the various sorted products; roughly 60% ends up in the sorted product MIX, 25% in the sorted product FILM, 10% in the various sorting residues and 5% in valuable sorting products like PP and PE where they may hinder recycling of these valuable sorting products. Current and future options for the waste management of multi-material laminated flexible packaging films include mechanical-, chemical- and organic recycling. Next to technical feasibility and technical hurdles there are various practical and economical limitations and acceptance issues that presently limit recycling of flexible laminates. Most stakeholders involved in plastic packaging are committed to develop a more sustainable, circular plastics industry. Despite the willingness of industry to move to sustainable and recyclable packaging products there are numerous challenges with respect to flexible laminates for packaging applications. Strategies to improve the end-of-life options for flexible laminates can be categorised in four main categories; avoid the use of laminates, redesign the laminates, redesign the collection & recycling scheme or improve the sort-ability and recognisability. As a first step (agreement on) a precise definition of recyclability is needed to allow evaluation of the recyclability of laminated flexible packages. This implies that a test method is needed to verify if newly developed laminated flexibles are recyclable
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Report 2037
ISBN 978-94-6395-370-2
Flexible laminates within the circular
economy
Ulphard Thoden van Velzen, Lisanne de Weert, Karin Molenveld
Flexible laminates within the circular
economy
Authors: Ulphard Thoden van Velzen, Lisanne de Weert, Karin Molenveld
This research project was conducted through the Center for Research in Sustainable Packaging (CriSP). This
report is prepared by Wageningen Food & Biobased Research and sponsored by the Netherlands institute for
sustainable packaging (KIDV) and the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture Nature and Food Quality, (project number
62290809).
Wageningen Food & Biobased Research
Wageningen, March 2020
Public
Report 2037
ISBN 978-94-6395-370-2
Version: final
Reviewer: Fresia Alvarado Chacon
Approved by: Arie van der Bent and Christiaan Bolck
Client: CRiSP
Sponsor: KIDV and the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture Nature and Food Quality
This report can be downloaded for free at https://doi.org/10.18174/519019 or at www.wur.eu/wfbr
(under publications).
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Contents
1 Introduction and motive 6
1.1 Objective and outline 6
1.2 Circularity goals & the new plastics economy 6
1.3 Defining recyclable and circular use 7
1.4 Laminates and recycling 8
2 Laminates; scope and function 9
2.1 Definition of laminates and scope chosen in this report 9
2.1.1 Definition and scope 9
2.1.2 Packaging type 9
2.1.3 Laminate film production 9
2.2 The function of laminates from a packaging perspective 10
2.2.1 Transportation characteristics 10
2.2.2 Communication and marketing 10
2.2.3 Protective function of the laminates 10
2.2.3.1 Mechanical properties and requirements 10
2.2.3.2 Physical properties and requirements 10
2.2.3.3 Biological requirements 11
2.2.3.4 Additional remarks 11
2.3 Environmental benefits of laminates 11
2.3.1 Food waste 11
2.3.2 Material reduction 12
3 Current laminates 13
3.1 Introduction 13
3.2 The individual layers within laminates 13
3.3 The main laminate structures and their application 13
3.3.1 Introduction 13
3.3.2 Metallised BOPP(/PE) laminates 14
3.3.3 Metallised BOPET/PE laminates and massive Aluminium laminates 14
3.3.4 PA/PE laminates 14
3.3.5 PET/PE and PE/PP laminates 15
3.3.6 PVdC/PP laminates 15
4 End-of-Life 16
4.1 Introduction 16
4.2 Current situation of waste management 16
4.3 Mechanical recycling 17
4.3.1 Introduction 17
4.3.2 Technical aspects 17
4.4 Chemical and thermal recycling 19
4.4.1 Introduction 19
4.4.2 Technical aspects 19
4.4.2.1 Chemical methods; Solvolysis 19
4.4.2.2 Chemical methods; Selective dissolution 19
4.4.2.3 Thermal methods; pyrolysis and gasification 19
4.5 Organic recycling 20
4.5.1 Introduction 20
4.5.2 Technical aspects 20
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4.5.3 Practical and economical limitations and acceptance 21
4.6 Paper recycling 22
5 Stakeholders 23
5.1 Introduction 23
5.2 Position of the government 23
5.3 Position of the plastic producers and converters 23
5.4 Position of food producing companies and retail 24
5.5 Position of civilians 25
5.6 Position of waste management, sorting and recycling industries 25
5.7 Industrial challenges with respect to laminates 26
6 Discussion; improving end-of-life options of flexible laminates 27
6.1 Introduction 27
6.2 Strategies 27
6.3 Avoid the use of laminated flexible packages 27
6.3.1 General approach 27
6.3.2 Additional comments on this strategy 28
6.4 Redesign the laminates to new flexible packages that fit in one of the existing recycling
schemes 28
6.4.1 General approach 28
6.4.2 Additional comments on the development of mechanically recyclable laminated
flexible packages 28
6.4.2.1 Laminated films that can be recycled with PE films 28
6.4.2.2 The use of water soluble tie-layer/barrier materials 29
6.4.3 Additional comments on laminates in organic or paper recycling 29
6.4.3.1 Compostable laminates 29
6.4.3.2 Paper recyclable laminates 30
6.5 Change the collection, sorting & recycling processes to fit in existing or novel laminated
flexible packages 30
6.5.1 General approach 30
6.5.2 Additional comments on these strategies 30
6.5.2.1 Mono collection of specific laminates 30
6.5.2.2 Create a separate sorted product for aluminium containing laminates 30
6.5.2.3 Create a sorted product for paper laminates 30
6.5.2.4 Create a new sorted product for organic recyclable packaging 31
6.5.2.5 Separate the laminate layers and recycle them separately 31
6.5.2.6 Improve the properties of laminates using compatibilisers 31
6.5.2.7 Chemical recycling 31
6.5.2.8 Thermal recycling 31
6.6 Make unavoidable non-recyclable laminate better recognisable and sortable 32
6.6.1 Comments on this strategy 32
6.7 General recommendations 32
7 Conclusions 33
8 Literature 34
Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037 | 5
Summary
This report focusses on flexible laminated packages that are composed out of multiple polymer types
and their impact on the recycling chains. Approximately 3-4% of the packaging products used in
Europe is a laminated flexible packaging film. By nature, these films are either more difficult to recycle
than mono-material packaging products, or even impossible to recycle.
In the Netherlands roughly 65% of the laminated flexibles are discarded with the mixed municipal
solid waste and 35% are collected in separate collection schemes for lightweight packaging wastes.
After sorting the laminates are distributed over the various sorted products; roughly 60% ends up in
the sorted product MIX, 25% in the sorted product FILM, 10% in the various sorting residues and 5%
in valuable sorting products like PP and PE where they may hinder recycling of these valuable sorting
products.
Current and future options for the waste management of multi-material laminated flexible packaging
films include mechanical-, chemical- and organic recycling. Next to technical feasibility and technical
hurdles there are various practical and economical limitations and acceptance issues that presently
limit recycling of flexible laminates.
Most stakeholders involved in plastic packaging are committed to develop a more sustainable, circular
plastics industry. Despite the willingness of industry to move to sustainable and recyclable packaging
products there are numerous challenges with respect to flexible laminates for packaging applications.
Strategies to improve the end-of-life options for flexible laminates can be categorised in four main
categories; avoid the use of laminates, redesign the laminates, redesign the collection & recycling
scheme or improve the sort-ability and recognisability.
As a first step (agreement on) a precise definition of recyclability is needed to allow evaluation of the
recyclability of laminated flexible packages. This implies that a test method is needed to verify if newly
developed laminated flexibles are recyclable
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1 Introduction and motive
1.1 Objective and outline
The objective of this report is to initiate research and developments that will stimulate recycling and
circular use of flexible laminates. For this purpose, an overview is presented of the current use of
laminated flexible packaging films in the Netherlands. Also, the fate of these laminates in the current
waste management system is estimated and issues that are experienced with these laminates in
recycling are discussed. The report concludes with recommendations how laminated flexible packaging
can better fit in a circular economy.
This research was conducted independently by the Center for Research in Sustainable Packaging
(CRiSP), a consortium of the University of Twente, Utrecht University, Wageningen Food & Biobased
Research and the Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging (KIDV), that develops and
disseminates knowledge on sustainable packaging for industry and society (Consortium agreement;
OPD 18/039/20180516). This position paper is prepared to initiate one of the first projects within
CRiSP that focusses on improving the recyclability and circularity of flexible laminates. The paper is
prepared by Wageningen Food & Biobased Research and sponsored by KIDV and the Dutch Ministry of
Agriculture Nature and Food Quality.
1.2 Circularity goals & the new plastics economy
Despite their excellent technical performance, plastics are generally associated with environmental
issues that may vary from greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, littering, “the plastic soup” to
micro plastics. The negative perception is strongly directed towards packaging and other “single use”
plastic products that significantly contribute to waste generation. A focus on plastic packaging is valid
since about 40% of all plastics produced are used in packaging products that typically have a short life
time. Installing closed waste management systems is an excellent manner to reduce littering issues
(but cannot completely prevent littering) and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This
is excellently depicted in the “New plastics economy” view presented by the Ellen MacArthur
Foundation.
Figure 1 The “New Plastics Economy” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)[1]
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The 3 key elements of the “New Plastics Economy” are:
1. Creating an effective after-use plastics economy
2. Drastically reduce the leakage of plastics in to natural systems
3. Decouple plastics from fossil feed stocks.
Elements of the “New Plastics Economy” are clearly found in the European Plastics Strategy that was
released by the European Commission on January 16th, 2018. The European Plastics Strategy contains
over 50 actions. A key element with respect to plastic packaging is the target that all plastics
packaging in the EU needs to be recyclable by 2030 [2]. The Dutch government supports these
European recycling targets and aims to reach these by cooperating with industries [3]. As a response
to the recycling targets various multinationals including Unilever, Coca-Cola and Nestlé have
announced that they want all their plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by
2025. This is even more ambitious then the target set by the EU.
“The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is signed by
250 organisations including packaging producers, brands, retailers and recyclers, as well as
governments and NGOs [4]. Signatories include companies representing 20% of all plastic packaging
produced globally. They include well-known consumer businesses such as Danone, H&M group,
L’Oréal, Mars Incorporated, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company and Unilever, major packaging
producers such as Amcor, plastics producers including Novamont, and resource management company
Veolia. The Global Commitment aims to create ‘a new normal’ for plastic packaging. Targets (that will
be reviewed and become more demanding every 18 months) include:
Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reuse
packaging models.
Innovate to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or
composted by 2025.
Circulate the plastic produced, by significantly increasing the amounts of plastics reused or
recycled and made into new packaging or products.
On February 21st 2019 in total 75 Dutch companies and organisations as well as the Ministry of
Infrastructure and Water Management have entered into a new “Plastic Pact” under which they
commit to use less and recycle more plastic [5]. Within the plastic pact the signatories commit to four
goals which need to be achieved by 2025.
All plastic products and packaging will be made out 100% recyclable plastic.
20% less plastic will be used in 2025 as compared to 2017.
At least 70% of the single-use plastic products and packages in the Netherlands will undergo
high quality recycling,
All plastic single-use items placed on the market will have a recycled content of at least 35%.
The implication of the various circularity goals for each individual company will vary depending on
their specific packaging and product portfolio. An important topic that still needs to receive attention is
the definition of the term ‘recyclable’ and the development of criteria to measure recyclability. Not
only with respect to the quality of recycled plastics but also to the type of waste management system
or even the presence of a waste management system. This has led to the introduction of terms like
“recycle ready” to replace “recyclable”.
1.3 Defining recyclable and circular use
Plastic recycling is the process in which recovered plastic scrap or other plastic waste is reprocessed
into useful products or materials. These recycling products can vary depending on the precise
recycling process: monomers, washed milled goods, granulates, compounds, agglomerates and new
products (packages, chairs, waste bins). To determine whether a plastic (packaging) product is
recyclable the PRE (Plastic Recyclers Europe) proposes the following four criteria [6]:
8 | Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037
1. The product must be made with a plastic that is collected for recycling, has a market value
and/or is supported by a legislatively mandated program.
2. The product must be sorted and aggregated into defined streams for recycling processes.
3. The product can be processed and reclaimed/recycled with commercial recycling processes.
4. The recycled plastic becomes a raw material that is used in the production of new products.
With respect to new materials they state that innovative materials must demonstrate that they can be
collected and sorted in sufficient quantities, must be compatible with existing industrial recycling
processes or will have to be available in sufficient quantities to justify operating new recycling
processes. Although these four criteria of recyclability are helpful, they are often insufficient
discriminating to assess the recyclability of laminated flexible packages.
Circular use of plastic packaging suggests that plastic packaging waste is reprocessed into new
packaging materials. Still there is no precise definition of circularity and according to literature Circular
Economy means different things to different people [7, 8]. Often closing the loop for material and
energy is a part of the definition, but also maintaining the value of products and waste minimisation is
frequently mentioned. Linder discusses circularity on a product level and describes a set of principles
for measuring product circularity [9]. He defines circularity at a product level as “the fraction of a
product that comes from used products” (both from closed- or open-loop cycles).
A clear example of circular recycling is the recycling of PET bottles into PET bottles. However, the
recycling of PET bottles into strapping and fleece fill is not always considered as ‘circular’ by
everybody.
Often a practical interpretation of the terms recyclable and circular regarding plastic packages is that
recyclable plastic package can be recycled into the following recycled products: PET, PE, PP, Film and
MIX, whereas circular plastic packages can be recycled into PET, PE, PP and Film. Hence, the recycling
into MIX is not considered circular recycling and may not comply with recycling criteria set by the PRE
because of the low market value. Moreover, if the quality of the recycled Film product is insufficient for
reprocessing into films, it will also not be considered a circular form of recycling.
1.4 Laminates and recycling
This report focusses on flexible laminated packages that are composed out of multiple polymer types
and their impact on the recycling chains. These laminated flexible packages enable the distribution of
multiple food products, giving these food products maximum protection and shelf life at minimum
packaging weights, and are hence vital for our economies. However, the multi-material nature of
these laminates make them difficult to recycle and hence they are not easily accommodated within
circular economy concepts. Often, these laminated flexible packages are classified as non-recyclable
packages [10]. Moreover, these laminated flexible packages cause polymeric contamination in all the
traditional recycled plastic products. Although a relative small packaging category, they have a
relatively large impact in lowering the quality of most recycled plastics and thereby form one of the
most challenging packaging categories in achieving a more circular economy.
Typically, flexible laminates are combinations of different plastic types that have their own specific
function in the film or packaging product like for example sealing ability, strength, stiffness, or oxygen
barrier. Since in general different polymer types are immiscible, mechanical recycling of laminates
(and mixing the various components) will result in products with poor optical and mechanical
properties. Moreover, various components of the laminate can be disturbing or even detrimental
during the recycling process itself like the presence of polyvinylidene chloride (PVdC) or aluminium
[11]. Although there is scientific knowledge on the compatibilisation of immiscible polymer blends
there is little scientific information on the recyclability of laminates [12-16]. Moreover, an integrated
analysis of the recycling of laminates should also encompass the current and future waste
management systems that include disposal by civilians, collection systems, sorting processes and
recycling processes (mechanical, chemical, organic, thermal). All these factors influencing the
recycling and recyclability of laminates will be addressed in chapter 4.
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2 Laminates; scope and function
2.1 Definition of laminates and scope chosen in this report
2.1.1 Definition and scope
The word laminate in this report refers to multi-material multi-layer, flexible packaging films. The
overall composition of the laminate is leading, not the specific structure nor the production method.
2.1.2 Packaging type
Laminates are predominantly applied in primary packaging. The scope in this report is thus limited to
primary packaging of (food) products. A primary package is the package that is in direct contact with
the product, is presented on the shelves and is taken home by the consumer. The most important
functions of this package are chemical, biological and to a lesser extend mechanical protection.
Moreover, the package sells the product to the consumer and is a platform for communicating product
information to the consumer [17]. In further use, the term ‘packaging’ will refer to the primary
packaging of a (food) product.
A further limitation of the scope in this report is the focus on flexible packaging and typically multi-
material films. This implies that rigid laminate products (most commonly thermoformed products) are
excluded. Typical packaging products based on laminate films within the scope of this report are bags,
wrappers, flow-packs, top-lidding film and (stand-up) pouches that are used to pack product ranging
from chips and bakery products to cheese, meat, soup and coffee.
2.1.3 Laminate film production
Multi-layer films can be produced in different ways, depending on the used materials, production
batch, composition and film requirements. Two different production methods can be applied; co-
extrusion and lamination. Using co-extrusion, a plastic film containing two or more distinct plastic
layers can be produced without requiring any intermediate steps. Lamination refers to a process in
which two or more plastic films are produced first, and then adhered together.
Co-extrusion can be used to produce both cast and blown multi-layer films. A machine layout is
required with multiple extruders that simultaneously extrude and produce a film composed of different
polymer layers. The separate polymer layers can be extremely thin, and the number of layers
commonly ranges from 5 to 13. The production method is suitable for polymer materials that have
similar melting behaviour and viscosity and is often used for large series of PE-PP, PE-EVOH-PP and
PA-EVOH-PE laminates. Often additional tie-layers are used [18].
Lamination is a technique used for materials with incompatible production methods, such as paper,
aluminium and cellophane, but also for films that need biaxial orientation to obtain the required
properties (like PET and PP). Lamination methods include extrusion lamination, adhesive lamination,
wax and hot melt lamination and coating techniques.
Well-known products produced via extrusion lamination are structures based on PE and paper(board).
Adhesive lamination is commonly used to produce plastic-film-based structures (e.g. PE-PET),
including laminates with aluminium.
Coating provides a thin layer of material on a base material. This layer can add functionality such as
improved sealing, barrier or protective properties. Examples of coating materials are PVdC,
polyacrylates and nitrocellulose. Vapour deposition is a suitable method for the application of a very
thin layer (nanometre range) of inorganic materials e.g. aluminium, AlOx or SiOx on another material
[17, 19].
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Though different production methods will lead to different compositions and constructions of the
laminate, this is less relevant for the ability to recycle a laminate. If the layers of the laminate are
inseparable it will be the composition that determines their behaviour during recycling rather than the
production method. Focus will therefore be on the overall composition of the flexible packaging
structure.
2.2 The function of laminates from a packaging
perspective
2.2.1 Transportation characteristics
The primary role of secondary and tertiary packages is enable the transportation without causing
mechanical damage. Nevertheless, also the primary package should enable transportation and
handling of the product. Laminates have the benefit of providing good protective properties at low
weight and volume. These characteristics benefit transportation by facilitating handling. They also
reduce energy consumption and optimize required space for transportation.
2.2.2 Communication and marketing
Persuasive designs convincing the consumer to purchase the product is just a small part of the
communicational function of a package. Type of product, content quantity, nutritional value,
ingredients and brand are all relevant to depict. Correctly chosen (top layers of) laminates can provide
a large benefit in design and communication, as the entire surface can be full-colour printable [17,
18].
2.2.3 Protective function of the laminates
The protection of the contained product, and thus avoidance of food waste, is a large environmental
benefit of packaging. The food product should be protected from mechanical, physical, biological and
chemical influences.
2.2.3.1 Mechanical properties and requirements
Shape-rigidity, the ability to retain an intended shape despite forces acting upon the package, is
determined by the contained product and mechanical properties such as elasticity and tensile strength
of the packaging. Layered structures containing a LDPE core and HDPE outer layers can provide
increased stiffness compared to mixed or two-layer LDPE-HDPE laminates [20]. Alternatively more
rigid film layers like Aluminium or PET can be used in combination with a flexible material like LDPE
[21]. Puncture resistance is required to withstand perforation of the package by impact or sharp
objects and it is improved with the toughness (as opposed to brittleness) of the material. The package
should not be damaged when a packed food product is dropped. This is determined by the elasticity
and structure of the package (e.g. use of buffer-zones). For flexible laminate packaging, the
secondary or tertiary packaging are the main contributors to stack resistance, a property required for
optimum stacking [17].
2.2.3.2 Physical properties and requirements
Visible light, UV-radiation and X-rays can deteriorate the quality of various food products such as beer,
cured meats and dairy products. The primary package can protect the food products by absorbing the
harmful radiations. Water vapour can deteriorate food texture and oxygen speeds up the oxidative
degradation of foods. Depending on which quality decay mechanism is leading for a food product,
either moisture ingress and/or oxygen ingress has to be reduced [17, 18]. Where metals and glass
block the diffusion of nearly all substances entirely, the permeability of molecules through polymers
differs per substance and material. The polarity of the material and free volume between polymer
chains, in combination with the (kinetic) diameter of permeating molecules determines the diffusion
rate [22, 23]. As oxygen, carbon dioxide and water molecules are smaller than e.g. aroma molecules,
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the latter will usually permeate slower through a material [24]. A nonpolar, or hydrophobic material
(such as PE) will provide an efficient barrier to water vapour. In contrast polar materials such as
starch and PVOH possess elevated water vapour transmission rates. For small gases such as oxygen
and carbon dioxide the opposite is true; these gases permeate in small amounts through polar
polymers at low levels of humidity and much larger amounts through nonpolar polymers. High density
materials (such as HDPE) will provide a better barrier compared to low density materials (such as
LDPE) due to smaller free volumes [22].
Laminates provide the ability to combine different materials with different barrier properties and thus
prolong shelf life. Aluminium layers in laminates provide an excellent barrier to (UV) light, water
vapour, oxygen gas, carbon dioxide gas, aroma molecules and thermal fluctuations and are thus often
applied in laminates. EVOH, PVdC, AlOx and SiOx layers also provide excellent gas barriers, but all
have their own set of drawbacks. EVOH is relative sensitive to moisture and the effective gas barrier is
moisture dependent. PVdC degrades recycling products and the application of the AlOx and SiOx in
flexible packaging need specific precautionary measures during production and use to prevent stress-
cracking of the brittle film [25].
In barrier packaging apart from the film itself there are specific requirements on the sealing quality.
PE and cPP offer the best sealing quality and the latter is suitable in packaging that needs to be
sterilized.
2.2.3.3 Biological requirements
Besides degradation of the product, the presence of oxygen can facilitate the growth of aerobic
microorganisms. A well-known packaging technique to maintain the quality of food products is
modified atmosphere packaging, in which the quality loss of the food products is retarded by
packaging it in a modified atmosphere, which is either low in oxygen, or low in oxygen and high in
carbon dioxide. In both cases, the package needs to maintain the protective atmosphere of the
headspace, which is often achieved by applying gas-barrier films, which are in almost all cases
laminated flexible films.
Sterilisation can provide total inactivation of microorganisms before opening the package. Still, only
few polymeric materials are suitable for sterilization. After sterilisation the food products in principle
have long shelf lives if they are protected from moisture, oxygen and sometimes also light. Laminated
flexible packages can offer those functions.
Moreover, pinholes, cracks or defects in the seal can enable insects, bacteria and fungi to enter the
package. Laminates often contain a smooth surface and a well- sealed inner layer to prevent this [17].
2.2.3.4 Additional remarks
Where the choice of material (combinations) determines the abovementioned properties to a large
extent, the crystallinity (alignment of polymer-molecules) and orientation of a material also influence
the stiffness, strength, density and permeability. A well-known example is BOPP film (Biaxially
Oriented PP) film with an improved strength and clarity as compared to non-oriented PP.
2.3 Environmental benefits of laminates
2.3.1 Food waste
As described in the previous section, packaging protects the contained product which increases the
shelf life of products and reduces food waste. Especially laminates provide excellent barriers to
microorganisms, light, oxygen gas, carbon dioxide gas and water vapour, which are most prone to
degrade the product [26, 27]. The environmental impact of food (production, processing, storage, ..)
can be between 5 (for vegetables and fruits) and 190 (for meat) times higher compared to their
package. The environmental impact of a package should therefore be regarded in combination with
the contained product [28, 29]. An increase in shelf life, can decrease food waste in retail, which is
especially true for fresh products with relatively short shelf lives [30-32].
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Although the contribution of laminated flexible packages to the shelf life of food products remains
unchallenged, the relation with food waste strongly varies with packaging type and packed product
[33, 34]. For food waste in supermarkets, there is a clear relation with the shelf life and the order
policy and in general a longer shelf life reduce the food waste in supermarkets [31]. Regarding food
waste at households, this type of food waste is a consequence of human behaviour and hence civilians
can also get accustomed to long shelf lives, alter their purchase and consumption behaviour and
therefore still cause food waste for food products with a long shelf life. Confusion and
misunderstanding on how the “best-before date” on a package relates to food safety and quality
significantly adds to food spoilage [33]. Furthermore also other factors such as portion size play an
important role in the food spoilage at households [35].
2.3.2 Material reduction
The introduction of laminates in the 1970’s resulted in a revolution in packaging design. It gave
packaging developers the ability to drastically reduce the amount of used packaging material per unit
of product, and consequently significantly reduce the environmental impact [26, 36].
Sustainability awards went out to manufacturers changing from heavy mono-material pots, jars and
cans to flow packs and stand-up pouches of plastic laminates [37]. A second increase in use of
laminates was initiated by the development of said ‘stand-up pouches’, which found wide application
due to low costs, high possible line speed, durability and attractive shelf presence [27, 38, 39]. Also, a
marketing-benefit is the avoidance of aluminium, which is sometimes perceived as environmentally
unfriendly by consumers [40, 41]. Again, material reduction leading to environmental benefits was
considered an important benefit of this new packaging concept. The combination of materials in the
pouch provides required barriers and stiffness to remain in upright position at low weight [27]. When
comparing the environmental impact (through life cycle analysis) of e.g. steel cans, HDPE canisters
and coated paperboard (which are all partially recycled), to the impact of a non-recyclable laminate
package with comparable functionality, the impact of the latter is still between 3 and 8 times lower
[42].
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3 Current laminates
3.1 Introduction
An amount of 0.6 million tonne of multi-layered laminated flexible packaging is estimated to enter the
European market each year [26] whereas the total demand for plastic packaging in Europe is
estimated just over 20 million tonnes [43]. This implies that about 3% of the packaging products used
in Europe is a laminated flexible packaging film. This data is in line with figures from the CEFLEX
project (0.75 million tonnes multilayer laminated flexible film) and with Dutch material flow analysis
studies of packaging materials that found 15 kton multilayer laminated flexible packages for
households on a total of 350 kton of post-consumer plastic packaging materials (hence 4%), see
chapter 4. All figures are highly similar, and differences can be explained by the diverse definitions of
flexible laminates. In this chapter, the separate laminate layers and their functions are described, as
well as the main laminate groups used in primary (food) packaging. Knowledge on the structures and
functions is helpful to estimate effects on recycling as well as understanding the potential impact of
changes in laminate structure to facilitate recycling.
3.2 The individual layers within laminates
The various types of food products are prone to different quality decay pathways which can be
retarded by a well-designed package. This implies that various food products require the package to
possess different types of barrier properties, for moisture, gas and / or light. As it is impossible to find
a single material that meets all requirements at low costs and low weight, material combinations are
used. Each material in the laminate serves a distinct purpose. Dividing the functions of a laminate into
categories will give insight into the assembly of laminates (see Table 1 on the next page).
Each product type and packaging design entails different material requirements. Not every laminate is
composed of the same materials and different assemblies of the same materials can have different
benefits in specific applications, as described in Table 1.
3.3 The main laminate structures and their application
3.3.1 Introduction
Typical examples of laminate structures are:
PE-PA-PE with tie layers to protect against moisture and gas
Print-PET-Al-PE to protect against moisture, gas and light.
PP-PA-cPP sterilisable bags to protect against moisture and gas
Laminate structures depend on the type of protection needed to preserve a specific product and the
type of package (lidding film, wrap, bag, pouch). This has led to the development of numerous
laminate structures. Still, the laminates can be categorised in main groups based on the type of
materials used in the laminate (in this report the laminate composition is leading).
14 | Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037
Typical functions of laminate layers [12, 18-20].
Layer
Function
Material
Extra information
Print layer Enable bonding to inks Communication PET, OPP, PVC Reverse printing for protection
from scratching. Sometimes
protective coating (over-
lacquer) PVC based inks for
sterilisable packages
Tie Adhesive between
dissimilar layers
Ability to
combine
Polyolefin, PUR
Gas barrier Reduce diffusion of
gasses and aromas
Increase shelf
life
Al-foil, AlOx, SiOx,
EVOH, PVdC, Nylon,
PVOH
Determined by the free volume
between the macromolecules,
polarity and size of permeating
molecules. Aromas are larger
molecules and migrate slower
than O2 , CO2 or H2O.
Moisture barrier Reduce water vapour
transmission rate
Increase shelf
life
HDPE, LDPE, OPP,
mOPP, Al-foil, AlOx,
SiOx, PVdC,
Determined by solubility
coefficients of moisture in
polymers.
Structural Strength and stiffness Machinability,
appearance,
mechanical
LDPE, HDPE, OPP, PET,
reinforced/filled
materials
Layered structures with LDPE
centre and HDPE sides: I-beam
effect, balance stiffness and
toughness
Abuse Tear strength,
puncture resistance,
dart impact
Protect during
handling and
PA
Seal Low Tm and wide range Fast and
(L)LDPE, mPE, EEA, cPP cPP for sterilisable packages
3.3.2 Metallised BOPP(/PE) laminates
These are typically thin laminate films to pack products like crisps and bakery products. Main function
of the package is the protection against moisture, oxygen and light. PE is often used for improved
sealing. The optical density parameter of these metallised films is often used as indicator for the
thickness of the aluminium layer and hence the oxygen gas permeability.
3.3.3 Metallised BOPET/PE laminates and massive Aluminium laminates
When high strength and stiffness are required in combination with good barrier properties (protection
against UV and/or oxygen) metallised BOPET/PE laminates and BOPET/Al/PE laminates are frequently
used. The laminates with metallised aluminium only have moderate gas barrier properties, while the
laminates with 6 µm thick massive aluminium layers have a near complete barrier for gases. The latter
laminates are usually also stiffer, which is desirable in for example cat feed pouches. There is an
increased use of AlOx replacing thicker aluminium layers, but both are still widely applied in food
packaging. This is partially due to better barrier function of laminates with massive aluminium layers
and partially due to the less complicated handling on packaging machines. Product examples include
packaging of coffee, stand-up pouches for soups and sauces but also pouches for cat food. In this
laminate the PET layer provides strength and stiffness, the PE enables sealing and the aluminium layer
provides barrier and depending on the thickness of the aluminium layer additional stiffness.
3.3.4 PA/PE laminates
PA/PE laminates have excellent puncture resistance and provide a barrier against water (PE) and
oxygen (PA). These laminates are typically used to pack dried fruit, snacks and pre-baked bread and
sometimes meat products. Also, these laminates are frequently used in vacuum bags for various
packaging applications.
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3.3.5 PET/PE and PE/PP laminates
These laminates are used in products were the strength and/or stiffness of PE are not sufficient and
when mediocre protection against gasses is sufficient. PE is primarily used as a sealing layer and can
also provide a moisture barrier. Typically, PET/PE and PE/PP laminates are used to pack (dry) pasta
and frozen foods.
3.3.6 PVdC/PP laminates
As an alternative to metallised films, laminates with PVdC are used to provide a gas (and water)
barrier. Especially for food products that demand both a high gas barrier film and an optically
transparent packaging film the PVdC based laminates are still in use. PVdC containing materials are
most frequently used in meat packaging (lidding), cured-meat packaging and biscuit packaging. Since
chlorine containing polymers are scrutinised for complicating the recycling of plastic packages,
alternative barrier materials like EVOH and PVOH are also used in this application.
16 | Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037
4 End-of-Life
4.1 Introduction
This chapter summarizes the knowledge of the current and future options for the waste management
of multi-material laminated flexible packaging films (mechanical-, chemical- and organic recycling)
from various perspectives;
The technical feasibility and technical hurdles
Practical and economical limitations and acceptance (e.g. recognition and separate collection
by consumers, costs of separation techniques and the economy of scale)
Technical and scientific information is combined with data from waste analysis performed by WFBR in
recent years.
4.2 Current situation of waste management
A material flow analysis of post-consumer plastic packaging wastes in the Netherlands in 2017
revealed that roughly 15.2 kton of laminated flexibles are present on the Dutch market. Roughly 10.4
kton are discarded with the mixed MSW and are incinerated and roughly 4.8 kton are collected in
separate collection schemes for lightweight packaging wastes [44, 45]. No reliable data is present on
the amounts of laminates in organic waste, paper & board waste, glass waste, etc. Furthermore, also
no reliable data is available on the presence of laminates in post-industrial waste streams. Some
substantial amounts of post-industrial multi-material flexible packaging waste should be generated as
production waste. A part of this waste is directly recycled, since in these cases the recycling blend of
the clean materials can function as tie-layer or filling layer. Various compatibilisers (additives) are
commercially available to improve the miscibility of the blends in order to allow post-industrial
recycling. The costs of these additives are not always justified and may prevent recycling, resulting in
post-industrial multi-material waste.
As indicated in the previous paragraph the majority (about 68%) of the Dutch laminates will be
incinerated and the energy is recovered, the rest (about 32%) is collected for mechanical recycling
(see next paragraph). This waste management option of incineration avoids the dispersion of plastics
over the planet and is robust. The main downside is the relatively high emission of carbon dioxide
gases associated with the incineration [46]. For this and other reasons, it has been politically decided
that plastic packaging waste should be recycled up to certain recycling targets [47, 48]. These targets
have been progressively raised, which makes the presence of non-recyclable plastic packages a
growing concern for the stakeholders in the collection & recycling schemes. Within the recently signed
Dutch Plastic Pact (February 21st 2019) companies active in the entire value chain (from plastic
producers to plastic recyclers) have committed to even more ambitious targets [49]. Material flow
analysis indicates that at present the low collection response and the relatively low portion of the MSW
that is subjected to mechanical recovery are the two main factors limiting recycling yields [45].
In almost the whole world apart from a few west European countries, the mixed MSW is predominantly
landfilled. The quality of the landfill operation varies strongly in terms of the management of the
emissions of dangerous gases, the leaching of toxic percolation fluids and the control of off-runs. Many
poorly maintained landfill sites will lose much of the flexible packaging films during downpours and
storms to rivers and seas. These sites contribute largely to the plastic soup problem. Therefore, the
Dutch waste management system is non-representative for the rest of the world.
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4.3 Mechanical recycling
4.3.1 Introduction
Mechanical recycling refers to a multi-step operation which starts with either the separate collection of
lightweight packaging waste or its mechanical recovery from mixed MSW. These plastic concentrates
are mechanically sorted into tradeable sorted products for recycling facilities. The mechanical recycling
facilities grind, wash, separate and dry the plastic to either washed milled goods, granulates or even
compounds, which are again sold to the plastic converting industries.
In mechanical recycling the intention is that polymeric chains remain intact, enabling the polymers to
be re-used several times.
Three quality decay mechanisms determine the applicability of mechanically recycled plastics:
degradation (chain scission etc.), molecular contamination (odour, migration) and polymeric
contamination (brittleness, haziness) [50]. For post-consumer plastic packaging waste, the
degradation is often negligible due to the short use-times and for most recycled packaging waste the
molecular contamination is so severe that food packaging applications are impossible (except for
rPET). Together with the molecular contamination the polymeric contamination is often determining
the practical application of recycled plastics made from post-consumer plastic packages. Since most
polymers are immiscible, recycled plastics that contain other polymers will form immiscible blends.
Although blend structures can be influenced to some extent by processing variables, in general they
will worsen the optical and mechanical properties of the recycled plastics [16]. Especially for polymers
with markedly different solubility parameters and melting points, such as PET and PE or PA and PE,
the presence of already one percent of foreign polymer will cause the mechanical properties to
deteriorate. On top of that, almost all post-consumer plastic packaging materials contain small
amounts of PVC and PVdC plastics. For laminated flexibles especially, the presence of PVdC (barrier
coatings) is relevant. These polymers will degrade during the processing of the recycled plastics, form
hydrochloric acid which is corrosive for the equipment and speeds up the degradation of other
polymers [16, 42]. Therefore, it is the aim of many recycling operations to remove as much polymeric
contaminants as possible during sorting and recycling operations and hence to obtain a recycled
plastic with reasonable polymer purity that can be applied successfully.
Degradation (chain scission) or more specifically hydrolysis can occur during reprocessing of
polyesters and polyamides if they are not sufficiently dried. Commonly solid state post condensation
processes are used to increase the molecular mass of recycled PET and enable reprocessing into
bottles and simultaneously remove molecular contaminants [51].
4.3.2 Technical aspects
Laminates are co-collected with other types of plastic packaging waste and lightweight packaging
(LWP) wastes, although they are often listed as non-targeted packages that the consumer should not
keep separate and preferably discard with the mixed MSW. In the Netherlands 4.8 kton of laminates
are co-collected with 254 kton of LWP and 10.2 kton of laminates are collected with 3086 kton of
mixed MSW. Hence the net collection yield is roughly 32% which is only a fraction lower than the
average net collection yield for all plastic packages of 38% [44].
Of the various types of laminates that can be discerned in waste analysis only the metal-containing
laminates had a clearly reduced collection yield; only 20% of these were separately collected. The
other laminates (PA-PE laminates for pre-baked breads, laminates for meat, fish, cheese, cured meats
and miscellaneous laminates) all had normal collection yields. Apparently, civilians can distinguish
metal-containing laminates to some extent, whereas they are unable to distinguish the other plastic
laminates.
These collected LWP wastes are fed to six different sorting facilities in the Netherlands. Their combined
effort gave the following distribution of laminates over the sorted product; roughly 60% ends up in the
sorted product MIX, 25% in the sorted product FILM, 10% in the various sorting residues and 5% in
valuable sorting products like PP and PE (see Figure 2). This will be explained below per category of
sorted products.
18 | Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037
Figure 2 Distribution of laminates over the sorted products
Laminates in MIX
The laminated flexibles will mostly be recycled in the MIX recycled products. For some laminated films
such as aluminium-deposited PP films and PE-EVOH-PE their presence will be considered a benefit,
while others with PA, PET and PVdC will be considered a contaminant which reduces the mechanical
properties of the recycled product.
Laminates in FILM
In modern film recycling plants, most of the PP-flexibles and laminated flexibles will be removed by
NIR sorting machines to obtain a feedstock that is mainly composed of PE flexibles. This feedstock is
subsequently washed, separated and re-granulated into a rLDPE product. In case the PE purity is
higher than 97%, the recycled plastic can be used to blow new dark-grey films. Additional colour
sorting allows production of semi-transparent film.
In standard dry mechanical recycling plants, the feedstock is grinded, sieved, wind sifted and
agglomerated. The PP-films and laminates will be incorporated in the agglomerate. These coarse
agglomerates with a PE purity of only 80-85% are sold to producers of garden furniture and other
solid objects.
Laminates in other sorted products
In the other sorted plastic products (PE, PP, PET bottles, PET trays) the laminated flexibles will be
present in low amounts where they will raise the level of polymeric impurity and hence reduce the
quality and applicability of the recycled plastic. Furthermore, their presence can cause the melt filters
to block more frequently, which makes the extrusion process unstable and yields more waste
products.
For the other sorted material products (beverage cartons, non-ferrous metals, ferrous-metals) the
presence of laminated flexibles is just an impurity that will reduce the mass yields and raise the level
of generated waste products during the recycling process.
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4.4 Chemical and thermal recycling
4.4.1 Introduction
Chemical and thermal recycling refers to processes which break down the polymers into their chemical
constituents and convert them into useful products like basic chemicals and/or monomers for new
plastics or fuels. Common chemical and thermal recycling methods for specific material groups are:
Depolymerisation reactions like solvolysis (e.g. hydrolysis, glycolysis) of condensation
polymers (e.g. polyesters and polyamides) to its monomers or specific oligomers
Selective dissolution of one type of polymer from a mixture of polymers (or for the specific
removal of additives) after which they can be separated and recycled.
Pyrolysis of mixed plastics into monomeric and oligomeric degradation products.
Gasification of mixed plastics into syngas
Thermal recycling is promoted by several stakeholders as an alternative processing technology for
mixed plastic waste that at present has a limited value in mechanical recycling.
4.4.2 Technical aspects
4.4.2.1 Chemical methods; Solvolysis
The depolymerisation of PET is currently pursued by various companies such as Ioniqa and Cumapol.
As an example, PET can be converted into BHET (bis(-2-hydroxyethylene) terephthalate) that can be
used as a monomer in PET production. As compared to mechanical recycling the required input purity
of PET is considerable lower. It is for instance possible to process both packaging waste (including
PET/PE trays), contaminated non-food bottles and textile waste. Still, the input purity will affect the
yield and hence the operational costs. In this process PET is recycled and all other (polymeric)
substances are considered waste and will be incinerated. A major advantage of the output of the
chemical recycling of PET is that the produced monomer can be used to produce virgin quality, food
grade PET. Similar processes are available for recycling of PLA and can be envisaged for other
polyesters.
4.4.2.2 Chemical methods; Selective dissolution
Several companies attempt to selectively dissolve one polymer from a mixture of polymers and to
recycle those. Although, the polymeric chains remain intact, it is still often categorised with the
chemical recycling technologies. The basic principle is fairly simple, the process technological reality is,
however, much more complex with the filtration of polymer solutions and the evaporation of solvents
from recovered polymers.
The most known start-up company in this field is APK with their Newcycling® technology [52]. They
have explored the options to separate PA-PE laminates by selective dissolving the PE and recovering
both the PE and PA.
Another selective dissolution process is the Creasolv® process [53]. Unilever has opened a pilot plant
in Indonesia to process laminated flexibles from sachets and to recover the polyethylene [54].
The Creasolv® technology can also be used to recycle polystyrene while removing flame retardants
[55].
4.4.2.3 Thermal methods; pyrolysis and gasification
Pyrolysis and gasification are promoted for the conversion of mixed plastic waste that is predominantly
composed of polyolefins (PE, PP, PS) that cannot be recycled through chemical methods. In case of
pyrolysis an oil or wax is produced as the main product, which can be re-used as fuel, feedstock or
material [36, 56]. In case of gasification syngas is obtained which can be used as an industrial
feedstock to produce methanol and other chemical building blocks.
Hydrothermal processing of polymers into monomers is another form of tertiary (feedstock), chemical
recycling. Yields for individual materials (e.g. for PET, PLA, PCA) are high, though not proven for
polymer blends or laminates [57].
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Pyrolysis of plastic waste has been studied by process technologists at universities and companies in
the past 2 decades. This resulted in multiple review articles [16, 58-61].
The plastic waste feedstock is first pre-treated by milling and removing contaminants. Then the
material is inserted in a reactor with an oxygen-free atmosphere at elevated temperatures of about
500oC and 1 2 bars of pressure. This renders multiple products, a gaseous mixture, a liquid product
and a solid product. The liquid is the intended product. The gas is used as fuel to run this endothermic
process and the solid is either a waste product (tar) or low-income side product (char).
The composition of plastic waste feedstock has a great influence on the type of products that are
formed. Heteroatoms (O, S, Cl, N, Br, P) in the feedstock are in principle undesired for multiple
reasons: the formation of corrosive gases (Cl, Br, S), reduction of yield (O, N) and the undesired
accumulation of these elements in the liquid product. Hence, especially laminated flexible films
containing other materials than polyolefins would be an undesired type of feedstock for pyrolysis.
4.5 Organic recycling
4.5.1 Introduction
The development of biodegradable packaging including multi-material laminates is receiving much
attention and this is boosted by environmental issues with respect to littering and “plastic soup”. Still,
experts do not believe that biodegradable packaging is the single solution for these issues but could
have benefits in specific applications [62]. Examples are bags for the collection of organic waste,
packaging products that after use contain large amounts of organic residues (teabags, coffee
capsules) and various products that are used in agriculture or are likely to end up in nature.
In biodegradation it is important to discriminate between uncontrolled (littering) and controlled
environments (industrial composting, anaerobic digestion). Controlled environments through specific
waste collection and waste treatment processes are highly preferred. Setting criteria for
biodegradation indicating the biodegradation conditions (environment), time limitations and
prohibiting the use of additives/substances that can be harmful for the environment is a prerequisite.
Moreover, standard methods and certification schemes need to be in place to measure and ensure
actual biodegradation in the specific waste treatment system. A good example is the EN13432 [63]
standard and certification via the Seedling logo. The three main criteria of the EN 13432 standard are:
1. Biodegradation should be complete to natural occurring gasses, water and biomass
2. Disintegration should be sufficiently fast and compliant with industrial practice
3. Product should have no negative effect on the (composting) process and the quality of the
compost.
The first criterion defines the polymer types and prevents the formation of micro-plastics. The second
criterion sets the size of the packaging product and the third criterion prevents the use of harmful
components/additives like heavy metal containing printing inks.
4.5.2 Technical aspects
The organic recycling of biodegradable multi-material laminates is feasible from a technical
perspective. Combinations of biodegradable materials will still biodegrade. The use of AlOx and SiOx
barrier coatings is not restricted as SiOx is a naturally occurring substance and aluminium (in the low
concentrations used in AlOx coatings) is considered a trace element that is necessary for biological
activity. All packaging components need to comply with EN13432 (labels, glues and inks) since the
final packaging product needs to be certified. Biodegradable paper laminates can also be recycled via
organic routes provided they fulfil the criteria of EN13432. Moreover, food residues do not have to be
washed off. Organic recycling via industrial composting will result in compost, a valuable resource that
can be used as a substitute for peat (peat is not renewable). Using anaerobic digestion, methane gas
can be produced.
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4.5.3 Practical and economical limitations and acceptance
The most logical route for the collection and recycling of biodegradable (compostable) plastic
packaging would be together with (post-consumer) organic waste. Despite standards and certification
schemes that state that packaging products that comply to EN13432 can be disposed of with organic
waste, this is not commonly accepted by municipalities and companies responsible for treatment of
organic waste. This is due to various factors like for example:
limited understanding of the EN13432 standard and the biodegradation process, leading to
misconceptions,
(fear of) pollution of organic waste with fossil non-degradable plastics,
changes in industrial composting processes and lack of information how this influences the
behaviour of certified compostable packaging materials.
At present various stakeholders are involved in a project that will measure the effect and fate of
specific compostable plastic packaging products in a representative full-scale composting facility. The
aim is to set-up a positive list of products that are allowed in organic waste. This positive list focusses
on products that help to increase the amount of food waste collected to be composted (co-benefit) and
not on plastic products that are difficult to recycle like laminates. Typical products that are considered
on the positive list would be teabags, coffee pads, coffee capsules and collection bags for organic
waste.
Improved labelling is needed to minimize sorting errors by consumers. KIDV designed a label for this
purpose, indicating that the specific packaging should be disposed of with organic waste, but at
present this is not communicated due to discussions on acceptance. Additionally, changing the
appearance of the packaging and the specific use of biodegradable packaging for food products that
are associated with organic waste will help consumers with correct disposal of biodegradable
packaging products.
Industrial organic waste which contains compostable products is widely accepted for a separate
treatment. Companies like Attero indicate that PLA disposables collected at festivals generate a
favourable amount of methane in anaerobic digestion processes.
The main economical limitations are associated to the testing and certification of biodegradable
packaging products. Still, this is necessary to prove the recyclability of these products. In principle
adaptations (additional sieving and milling) in organic recycling processes are not necessary. Current
issues with plastic pollution are not associated with biodegradable plastics but with non-degradable
fossil-based plastics.
In the EU Roadmap for a Strategy on Plastics in a Circular Economy” the transition from a linear to a
circular economy is pursued via decarbonizing the plastic economy and an increased efficiency of
waste management with a strong focus on recycling of plastics [2]. In this strategy organic recycling is
missing as a valuable recycling route. Still, separate collection of bio-waste and organic recycling will
help to improve the quality of other waste streams as well as the efficiency of waste management
altogether[64]. At present multi-material flexible packaging products are not mechanically recyclable
and may even disturb mechanical recycling of other packaging products. In this perspective organic
recycling can offer a valuable alternative for multi-material packaging.
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4.6 Paper recycling
Several paper-plastic-laminates and paper-plastic-aluminium-laminates are on the market for dry food
products, herbs and tea products, etc. Although civilians are not encouraged to discard these
laminates with paper & board, it is likely that several of them will end-up in this collected stream.
Since the amounts of collected paper & board are relatively large as compared to the amounts of
paper-based laminates, they will simply be one of the many small impurities for the complete recycling
system and currently hardly relevant. This might, however, change in the future. Since, consumers
perceive paper as sustainable, this could encourage producers to use paper-based-laminates. Paper
laminates should not be processed in conventional paper mills. It is unlikely that the laminates will
disintegrate and hence they will only contribute to the plastic waste fraction that has to be incinerated.
Also, paper-based laminates used for food packaging can contain food residues that cause
contamination with microorganisms and can attract pests. The paper-laminates could better be treated
with beverage cartons in a dedicated recycling facility, where the laminates will disintegrate and
contribute to both the recovered paper pulp and the plastic-aluminium-rejects. To allow the paper
laminates to be recycled together with beverage cartons, large changes are required in the collection
and sorting processes. Several stakeholders are expected to oppose such changes, nevertheless from
an overall material recycling perspective, this might be a good suggestion.
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5 Stakeholders
5.1 Introduction
Improving plastic recyclability and promoting the development of a circular economy require
cooperation throughout the entire value chain. Governmental support for guidance and financing is
needed also since global actions/developments are needed. Moreover, most participants in the value
chain are supplying the global market.
The main stakeholders (in categories) are:
Government; Dutch (national & local) and European,
Plastic producers & converters (including laminate producers),
Food producing companies (that apply laminates),
Retail,
Civilians,
Waste management, sorting & recycling industries.
Their positions will be discussed below in separate paragraphs. The information is based on publicly
available information, supplemented with information from over 10 interviews and discussions with
food companies that use laminated flexibles as packaging material for their products.
5.2 Position of the government
At present the European government is very active in setting circularity goals (see paragraph 1.2) and
these are or will likely be adopted by the national governments of member states. The primary focus
of plastic packaging waste policies was to increase the recycling rates and to lower the specific
amounts of mixed MSW produced per inhabitant. The waste directive of the European Union has the
waste hierarchy as leading principle, which implies that member states are forced to divert MSW from
landfill sites, to establish waste sorting and recycling facilities and to erect incineration facilities. Policy
studies showed an increasing gap between member states with regard to compliance to this waste
directive’s diversion from landfill [65]. The growing awareness of the Plastic soup problem and the
dispersion of plastics into the environment in general caused the European commission to write a
Plastic Strategy [66] in which legislation is proposed that will force producers to only place plastic
packaging objects on the market that is either reusable or easily recycled. A possible interpretation of
this text is that laminated flexible packages, which are non-recyclable almost by definition, need to be
redesigned to be recyclable or must be replaced by mono-material packages.
5.3 Position of the plastic producers and converters
Industries have positively responded on the challenges set, by themselves or through various
associations including:
Plastics Europe representing plastics manufacturers,
European Plastics Converters (EuPC),
European Plastics Recyclers (PRE).
Plastics Europe has published “Plastics 2030”; making Circularity and Resource Efficiency a Reality
[67]. This voluntary commitment translates overarching goals into specific targets (see Table 2).
24 | Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037
Summary of the plastics 2030 strategy of Plastics Europe.
Overarching goals
Targets
Prevent leakage of plastics into the environment By increasing engagement inside and outside the plastic industry
Improve resource efficiency By accelerating innovation in the full life cycle of products
Improve circularity of plastic packaging
By reaching 100% reuse in 2040, recycling and/or recovery of all
plastic packaging in the whole EU.
In 2030: 60% reuse and recycling of all plastic packaging
As can be seen from the table, targets on littering and resource efficiency are not very specific and
less ambitious as targets set by the European Government and by individual companies
(multinationals). In these targets clear definitions for recycling and recyclability are needed. The
definitions as proposed by international plastic recycling groups are listed in section 1.3.
Many plastic producers & converters have signed The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment (see
section 1.2). As a response to these commitments and targets the debate has started on simplifying
plastics and phasing out certain categories from certain uses (e.g. polyvinyl chloride,
polystyrene from packaging) [68]. Simultaneously “new” plastics and compostable plastics like PLA
are under debate since they do not fit within current collection & recycling systems and their initial
volumes are low. Potential benefits of including alternative materials to the recycling system are
disregarded. Also, the shortcomings of the current plastic system are hardly acknowledged and there
is no clear and broadly supported roadmap to progress towards a more circular recycling system.
Plastic producers & converters are open for the development of bio-based drop-in materials that are
chemically identical to current bulk plastics (e.g. bio-PET and bio-PE).
With respect to laminates, producers aim at developing novel (barrier) laminates that can be recycled
with (PE) film products. The development and marketing of paper-based laminates and/or laminates
that are biodegradable and/or compostable as a solution for current recycling issues (and sometimes
littering), is ongoing and mainly promoted by smaller and medium size companies.
5.4 Position of food producing companies and retail
Food producing companies like Nestlé and Unilever have set strict recycling targets. Most food
companies have announced that they strive to redesign their plastic packages to have them either
reusable, recyclable or organically recyclable before the end of 2025. How to accomplish this with
laminate flexible packages is still an unresolved issue. Options that are frequently mentioned when
interacting with this type of companies are:
Replacement of metallised packaging products with EVOH containing packaging,
Replacing PET/PE laminates by (talc filled) PP/PE laminates
Replacing PA-PE laminates by SiOx-PP films
Introducing paper-based laminates,
Biodegradable barrier laminates.
The companies are restricted by the availability of recyclable laminates, and often scientific proof on
recyclability is missing. Still, retail has introduced the topic recyclability of packages in their
procurement conditions [69]. In the discussions between food companies and retailers, increased
prices and/or shorter shelf life because of phasing out laminates were generally considered not
acceptable by retail. Topics like food sourcing (sustainable), preventing food waste and sales
(marketing) are still more important for retail.
During the months November 2018 -January 2019 we had over 10 interviews and discussions on the
new demand to use recyclable packages with food packaging companies that utilise laminated flexible
packages. We made the following observations:
No food company had a final plan to deal with the recyclability of the laminated flexibles,
Companies that use only one type of laminated plastic package already had identified an
alternative packaging type that might be suitable. When asked for scientific proof of
Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037 | 25
recyclability of the alternative package, the food companies had none and told that they rely
for this on the packaging companies.
Companies that use multiple laminated plastic packages had only partial action plans. Some
focussed on the laminates for the largest products. Other food companies focussed on
dedicated laminates that were only used by them and hoped the other laminated flexibles will
be dealt with by packaging companies.
5.5 Position of civilians
Scientific studies on the consumer perception of laminated flexible packaging are scarce [41].
Generally, they do not appear in the packaging-irritation-top 10’s which are usually filled with
packages that are difficult to open or that are relatively large as compared to the contents, so they
apparently do not cause the largest share of dissatisfaction. In general, laminated flexible packages
are lightweight and render the food products relative long shelf lives, which are typical consumer
benefits that are likely to be appreciated.
In the United Kingdom consumer organisations have protested against the non-recyclable nature of
crisp bags [70] and in consequence the largest UK crisp manufacturer commenced a voluntary send-
back recycling system[71] and also the company Terracycle started a return system [72]. These
examples reveal that the position of civilians towards laminated flexible packages can change
depending on the focus given by the media.
5.6 Position of waste management, sorting and recycling
industries
The waste management companies involved with incineration have no issues with laminated flexible
packages. In general, they will raise the caloric value of the waste and hence will improve the thermal
recovery rate. They will only be less positive with respect to chlorine-containing laminates (PVdC and
PVC containing) since incineration will cause the formation of hydrochloric acid and this can cause
corrosion in their installations.
Sorting companies of lightweight packaging waste consider laminated flexible packages to be
contaminants. Especially the aluminium-containing flexible packaging films are defined as a
contaminant that belongs to the waste category ‘other residual materials’ for which there are
concentration limits in the sorting specifications. Hence, for the sorting companies this is a problematic
packaging category, for which they must control the concentration in their sorting products.
Recycling companies of PET bottles, PE, PP and Film will regard the presence of laminated flexible
packages as a contaminant that will introduce polymeric contamination into their recycled plastics and
hence must be avoided. Furthermore, aluminium-containing laminates are regarded as the main
culprit for melt-filter blockades and process instability. The reason is that plugged melt filters show
many metallic particles which are claimed to originate from these aluminium-containing laminates.
Although it is likely that these aluminium-laminates do contribute to this problem, the melt filter will
also plug because of the presence of laminates which contain other polymers with high melting
temperatures (PA, PET), etc. And last, the metal-containing laminates will trigger the metal-detecting
equipment that is placed before sensitive equipment such as mills and extruders, creating material
losses. A better discrimination by the metal detectors between the real solid metal objects, laminated
flexibles with massive aluminium-layers and laminated flexibles with deposited aluminium-layers is
desirable, since the latter category is most probably not detrimental for extruders and melt filters.
Recycling companies of MIX will in general consider the laminated flexible packages as a feedstock.
One representative of a MIX recycler claimed that he likes to have crisps bags in the MIX, since their
presence improves the mechanical properties.
26 | Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037
Stakeholders involved with processing of both organic and plastic waste do not accept biodegradable
barrier laminates as a solution for current recycling issues with laminate packaging. In both cases a
potential increase in polymeric contamination of these waste streams is used as the main argument to
oppose the introduction of such laminates.
5.7 Industrial challenges with respect to laminates
Despite the willingness of industry to move to sustainable and recyclable packaging products there are
numerous challenges with respect to flexible laminates for packaging applications. The main questions
are summarised below:
Definitions:
What is the definition of recyclable?
To what extent is the quality of the recycled materials and the goals we want to achieve with
those recycled materials included into the definition of recyclable?
Which laminates are recyclable and how is this proven (practically and scientifically)?
Solutions:
What packaging products can replace current high-performance laminates? What are their
benefits and what are their drawbacks (economically and environmentally)?
Can alternative laminates offer the same functionality with respect to processing on
packaging lines and with respect to shelf-life? And if not, is the reduced shelf-life then still
acceptable within the product logistics and doesn’t it result in more product loss (food loss).
What is the availability of alternative laminates? (Are these alternatives true alternatives; do
they offer a meaningful advantage?)
What are the requirements with respect to sorting, are adaptations in sorting schemes and/or
sorting equipment necessary?
What should be the target sorting product of a laminate?
Strategy:
Which type of solution should be prioritized: avoiding the use of laminated flexibles,
redesigning the multi-material laminates or adjusting processes to make existing laminates
more recyclable?
Which technological developments will have a major impact on laminate products within the
coming 5-10 years (both in recycling technology and in material technology)?
How do we manage global issues when products are sold to countries without a closed waste
management system or with other regulations than in Europe? (For example, how to deal
with PVC, which is still considered a sustainable packaging material in Asia?)
What is the impact of the negative image of plastic packaging on the future of plastic
packaging products and more specific on plastic laminates?
How to deal with the myriad of collection & recycling systems in Europe?
The research questions that can already be answered with the current knowledge will be answered in
the next chapter. The other research questions will have to be answered based on future research.
Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037 | 27
6 Discussion; improving end-of-life
options of flexible laminates
6.1 Introduction
The urgency to develop a more sustainable, circular plastics industry is clear for most stakeholders
involved. However, stakeholders often have different priorities and different ideas about a circular
economy for plastic packages. Therefore, there is no widely shared roadmap of the steps that need to
be taken to reach that circular economy.
Also, the whole concept of a circular economy for the plastics industry still needs to be developed.
Laminates (multi-material, flexible packaging products) are a distinct but small group of packaging
products that by nature are either more difficult to recycle than mono-material packaging products, or
even impossible to recycle. This chapter summarises strategies towards circular laminates including
comments on their feasibility with respect to technical, economic and social aspects (acceptance).
Also, comments on environmental benefits and drawbacks are indicated.
6.2 Strategies
All the strategies that stakeholders are (considering) working on can be categorised in four main
categories, which, ordered in line with the waste hierarchy model, renders the following list [73]:
1. Avoid using laminated flexible packages.
2. Redesign the laminated flexible packages to new flexible packages that fit in one of the
existing recycling schemes.
3. Redesign one of the current collection & recycling schemes to fit the existing laminated
flexible packages in.
4. Improve the sort-ability and recognisability of existing laminated flexible packages to reduce
the negative impact of existing laminated flexible packages in existing collection & recycling
schemes.
This hierarchal list is further expanded and elaborated on in the following paragraphs.
6.3 Avoid the use of laminated flexible packages
6.3.1 General approach
Avoiding the use of laminated flexible packages is the first measure that should be considered. To
assess the viability of this measure, the following aspects should be verified:
a) Verify that there is a sound technical reason for using a laminated flexible package.
b) Verify that the shelf life of the product in the laminated flexible is substantially longer than in
a mono-material PE based film, which translates in less product-loss for the products
packaged in laminated plastic films.
c) Verify that the protective function that the laminated film offers cannot be substituted by
protective additives in the food product.
d) Verify that the shelf-life is truly required and explore the possibility for a fresh, short-life
product alternative in a mono-material package which fits in the logistical systems that are in
place.
In all cases additional environmental impacts should be avoided as much as possible.
28 | Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037
6.3.2 Additional comments on this strategy
Currently most laminates are used for a solid technological reason regarding shelf-life extension
provision of protection to the packaged goods. However, for a small group of laminate applications,
there is no solid technological reason to use a complicated film structure. The use of laminates can be
historical and has not been challenged or changed anymore. Also, in some cases the marketing
department requires a metallic look for the packaged product, that has been executed with a
laminated film. For these cases it would make sense to reconsider the laminated flexible films applied
and to explore the option of using a standard PE flexible instead.
In a few other cases, the protection of a food product can either be effectuated by adding protective
additives to the food product or by using a multi-layered barrier packaging material. Well known
examples are fruit juices which are prone to oxidation and to which either anti-oxidants (like vitamin
C) could be added or could be packaged in barrier bottles without additives. In the past decades a
reverse trend was noticed, in which less additives were used by the food companies to produce more
authentic food products. This ‘clean label’ trend is still relevant and going against it may be an
opportunity for some products but needs careful explanation.
In a few other cases it might be possible to change the whole concept of packaging, product and
logistics. For instance, pre-baked bread products are currently sold in PA-PE packages and the
modified atmosphere keeps the bread products protected against mould growth for 6-8 weeks. Some
pre-baked bread products are, however, sold as fresh products with a shelf life of maximally one
week. These fresh pre-baked bread products can simply be packaged in a PE bag and hence do not
require a laminated film. However, the whole logistical concept must be changed, to avoid the
generation of large amounts of food waste, which will have substantially more environmental impact
than the laminated flexible film itself.
For other applications, avoiding the use of laminated flexibles would imply an increased used of
packaging materials, like for instance in the redesign from stand-up pouches to plastic pots, glass jars
and metal cans. At present the recycling of glass and metal packaging is more advanced and feasible
as a ‘permanent material’. Still this would involve increased costs of packaging and logistics and would
cause additional environmental impacts. Avoiding the use of laminated flexibles is technically feasible
for products like pouches for soups and sauces but not for packages for fish products and cured meat
products, which rely either on vacuum packaging or modified atmosphere packaging. For these
products avoiding laminates would imply a reduced shelf life that can cause food spoilage, again
contributing to costs and environmental impact.
6.4 Redesign the laminates to new flexible packages that
fit in one of the existing recycling schemes
6.4.1 General approach
If the use of laminated flexible packages cannot be avoided, changing their design to make them fit in
one of the existing recycling schemes is a next option. This could be mechanical recycling, organic
recycling or paper recycling, depending on the specific redesign. Within the mechanical recycling
system, various redesign routes can be envisaged like the development and use of barrier-layers and
tie-layers that are fully compatible with PE film recycling or the development and use of water-soluble
barrier and tie-layers that are removed during mechanical recycling.
6.4.2 Additional comments on the development of mechanically recyclable
laminated flexible packages
6.4.2.1 Laminated films that can be recycled with PE films
Several plastics and converting industries are busy to develop new resins and new laminated film
structures which could be recycled with PE film to a recycled LDPE product. A few companies claim to
Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037 | 29
develop a mono-material laminate structure of different grades of PE which would render a film with
both gas and moisture barrier properties[74, 75]. In case this new laminated film structure would
indeed be composed of only one type of polymer (PE) and the material is easily sorted and
mechanically recycled, this would be a great option. No technical evidence for this claim has been put
forward yet.
Other flexible packaging companies are busy with developing EVOH and SiOx-based alternatives of
which they claim that these films are completely compatible with PE film recycling. This could be a
proper strategy in case it has been proven that these new laminated structures are recyclable with PE
films and do not infringe on the applications of this recycled plastic material. Several flexible film
companies currently promote new laminated film materials as ‘circular’ or as ‘recyclable. However, no
technical evidence for these claims are given and hence care should be taken.
Several PE-EVOH-PE laminate films are promoted as recyclable since they are composed of more than
95% of PE and hence comply with a legal limit in a Swedish law. This, however, does not imply that
these laminates are recyclable and do not lower the quality of recycled PE film.
Another company succeeded in making a barrier film based on SiOx deposited on PP and or PE
films[76]. Although quite an achievement from a production point of view, it is unclear if all these
laminates are recyclable. The SiOx layer presumably doesn’t interfere with the mechanical recycling
processes, as it has previously been demonstrated that the SiOx deposited on PET bottles doesn’t
interfere with the PET bottle recycling process. Hence in case a PE-SiOx laminate is produced without
additional layers of PET or other polymers, the film is likely to be recyclable with PE films, although it
should be noted that the polyolefin recycling in certain aspects differs from PET recycling. In case the
base layer is PP film, the film will cause polymeric contamination with PP in PE film products, unless
NIR sorting machines remove it.
6.4.2.2 The use of water soluble tie-layer/barrier materials
There are some examples of water soluble barrier materials, like PVOH/PVA [77] that are currently
applied in laminated film structures with a gas barrier function. Compared to other barrier materials
this material is rather expensive and more difficult to process. Currently only a limited amount of film
suppliers is offering high-performance barrier films that are based on these barrier layers. Since some
of these films are targeted for the cured-meat packaging markets, apparently high barrier laminated
film structures can be made with these resins.
Although in general barrier materials like PVOH are known to be water-soluble, it needs to be tested
that these resins also dissolve during the mechanical recycling process. Furthermore, the sealing
layers will need to be produced from PE to make the film compatible with the PE film recycling process
and all other packaging components (glue, labels) will need to be made from water-soluble resins
(more precisely the resins need to dissolve in hot alkaline solutions). Although still much development
work is required to establish full-compatibility with the current sorting & recycling scheme for plastic
packaging waste, the prospect for this solution is good.
6.4.3 Additional comments on laminates in organic or paper recycling
6.4.3.1 Compostable laminates
In organic recycling, plastics laminates containing multiple biodegradable materials (plastics and
papers), even with AlOx and SiOx coatings can be processed. Various compostable barrier laminates
are currently commercially available. Some still contain PVdC coatings although this is not in line with
the EN13432 standard. Those based on metallised films are viable substitutes for packaging various
food products. The main hurdle is their acceptance by waste management companies. A successful
implementation would involve gaining the acceptance to let civilians discard these laminates in organic
waste. At present the potential acceptance of specific compostable packaging products that contain or
help the collection of organic waste is studied and discussed. An important issue at present is the
(increasing) contamination of organic waste with non-degradable plastic (packaging waste). This has
led to the installation of sieves to remove plastic waste (including compostable products) before the
organic waste enters the composting facility.
30 | Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037
6.4.3.2 Paper recyclable laminates
An increased use of paper-laminates, accompanied with the acceptance of these paper-laminates in
the related waste streams of either paper & board and beverage cartons, could be a relative simple
solution if the incumbents would accept the addition. Since the paper fibres are relatively enclosed in
the laminate structure, disintegration seems to be more appropriate in a beverage carton recycling
facility than in a conventional paper mill. This would imply that the paper laminates would have to be
discarded with the lightweight packaging waste and sorted into the beverage carton sorted product.
The paper would then be reused, and the plastic-aluminium rejects would then be used in cement
kilns as fuel. The co-operation of the incumbents with this transition is unclear.
6.5 Change the collection, sorting & recycling processes to
fit in existing or novel laminated flexible packages
6.5.1 General approach
A fundamental difference with the previous approach is that this strategy needs investments of
stakeholders involved in waste management and recycling rather than in laminate production or use.
These investments should be justified by volumes, profits, environmental benefits etc. Various
strategies can be envisaged:
Operate a mono-collection system for laminated flexibles.
Create a new sorting category for aluminium-containing laminated flexibles and process
them separately.
Create a new sorted product for papercontaining laminated flexibles and process them
separately (or combine with beverage cartons).
Create a new sorted product for organic recyclable packaging where organic recyclable
laminates fit in.
Develop and use new layer separation processes.
Improve the properties of laminates using compatibilisers.
Further develop chemical recycling for processing laminates.
Further develop thermal recycling for processing laminates.
Design-from-recycling; use compatabilisers and change process parameters to make
valuable products from laminated flexibles.
6.5.2 Additional comments on these strategies
6.5.2.1 Mono collection of specific laminates
Mono collection of metallised PP laminates for crisps was recently introduced by Walker in the UK[78].
Collected packaging waste will be used to produce roofing, flooring, trays and outdoor furniture. Still,
mono collection of specific packages is very expensive, and the environmental benefits seem limited.
6.5.2.2 Create a separate sorted product for aluminium containing laminates
Aluminium-containing laminates (both deposited and massive) are present in the currently collected
lightweight packaging waste, although collection agencies and municipalities have asked civilians not
to collect them separately (see paragraph 4.2). Currently, these laminates end-up in various sorted
products, where they are currently regarded as contaminants. If these aluminium-containing
laminates would be sorted in a separate fraction (metal containing films), then they could be recycled
into various objects varying from roofing tiles to appliance housings. This would however require the
development of dedicated sorting technologies and recycling technologies.
6.5.2.3 Create a sorted product for paper laminates
This strategy is related to the paper recyclable laminates discussed in paragraph 6.4.3.2. A separate
category for paper laminates could be created for the sorting of lightweight packaging wastes and
Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037 | 31
these laminates could be recycled separately. Alternatively, these paper laminates are sorted to the
beverage carton product and simultaneously processed with this material.
6.5.2.4 Create a new sorted product for organic recyclable packaging
This strategy is related to the organic recyclable laminates discussed in in paragraph 6.4.3.1.
Advantages of a separate sorting category for organic recyclable products are that larger volumes of
compostable packaging can be created that can be processed separately from organic waste to
produce methane. Moreover, the system does not rely on accurate disposal by civilians. Acceptance of
this strategy by waste companies involved in plastic sorting is the main hurdle as they fear pollution of
other sorting products by compostable plastics. This risk of pollution may be overrated as compostable
plastics can be removed using both NIR sorting and density separation. This implies that a PLA based
barrier laminate could be removed more easily than a PE-PA or PE-PET laminate.
6.5.2.5 Separate the laminate layers and recycle them separately
Good adhesion of laminate layers is often required to obtain sufficient functionality of the laminate.
For this purpose additional tie-layers are frequently used. Consequently, separation of laminate layers
is technically difficult and will significantly add to the costs. Moreover, not all layers are separable (like
SiOx and AlOx) so this strategy may not be applicable for all laminates. Once the different polymer
layers are separated the main polymeric components can be recycled. Usually, these are the relatively
larger sealing layers from PE and PP, which can be used to create a mixed polyolefin product. The
smaller fraction will be the barrier polymers (PA, EVOH, PET, etc.) which can be collected as sinking
fraction. This mixed sinking fraction can probably not be reused as a recycling product. Examples of
this strategy are the processes of APK and Creasolv, which are either in development or tested in pilot
facilities.
6.5.2.6 Improve the properties of laminates using compatibilisers
Using specific compatibilisers, the properties of PE/PA blends, PE/PET blends and many more polymer
combinations can be improved[12-16, 79, 80]. How this affects mechanical recycling of film products
is unclear. Also, it does not solve current issues with metallised films and specific barrier materials like
PVdC (thermal instability and acid formation) so is only applicable for certain categories of laminates.
For more complex mixtures, compatibilisation needs to be developed further. Compatibilisers
significantly add to the costs of recycled plastics. They can offer improved recyclability but not always
circularity. For instance, a mixed recycled plastic can be made from the sorted product MIX containing
these laminated flexibles by adding compatabilisers to improve the quality, but the question is if the
improvement in mechanical properties will be sufficient to pay for the added costs.
The use of compatibilisers can be regarded as one type of technical intervention that helps to create
higher performance materials for recycled feedstocks. Other interventions are adjusted processing
parameters to optimise the blend structure formation. These strategies are occasionally referred to as
design-from-recycling [81].
6.5.2.7 Chemical recycling
Only PA and PET based laminates are potentially interesting feedstocks for depolymerisation reactors.
However, most laminated films that contain either PA or PET have a minority share of these layers and
a majority of sealing layers of PE and cPP. Hence, this can only be an attractive option for a recycling
company if the residues can also be sold, as PO-mix. This appears to be attractive only for post-
industrial laminate wastes with known compositions. This doesn’t appear to be attractive for sorted
products made from post-consumer laminates, since various types of polymers will be present and
only mixtures of monomers and sealing polymers will be retrieved.
6.5.2.8 Thermal recycling
Pyrolysis of plastic packaging waste is being studied, but no company has delivered a turn-key
solution yet that is economically and ecologically sound. One issue is the formation of toxic side
products of high concern. Another issue is that the produced pyrolysis oils do not comply with the
32 | Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037
specifications regarding sulphur, nitrogen, phosphor and chlorine-content etc. The introduction of
heteroatoms plays an important role in this. Hydrogenation of the pyrolysis oils alleviates these quality
issues to some extent. Since laminated flexible packaging films are relatively rich in heteroatoms, this
feedstock does not appear to be attractive for thermal recycling processes. Finally, thermal recycling is
considered costly due to high energy input and relatively low yields.
6.6 Make unavoidable non-recyclable laminate better
recognisable and sortable
6.6.1 Comments on this strategy
For many applications, the use of laminated flexibles cannot be avoided without causing a large
environmental impact in the form of food losses. Additionally, these laminates cannot always be
redesigned into a new material which is proven to be fully compatible with the current sorting and
recycling industries. A fall-back option is to make them better recognisable and sortable. This is a
relevant option for all those laminates that contain materials that are proven to be non-compatible
with PE, hence PET, PA, Aluminium, PVC, PVdC and perhaps also EVOH, SiOx, PVOH etc. These
laminates can be coloured in a specific colour that will allow the rapid sorting of these materials. Also,
a marker or tracer could be added (fluorescence, or XRF based). This improved recognisability will
allow for a circular reapplication of the sorted product FILM if other contaminating film products like PP
and PET are also removed. To render this strategy successfully it is required that this improved sort-
ability will be harmonised with many film-producing and food-packaging companies, so that it can
reliably be applied by sorting companies. Applying the strategy to other non-PE film packaging
products (PP, PET)
6.7 General recommendations
Currently there are many open questions for all stakeholders. However, two questions prevail;
Is there a precise definition of recyclability to test laminated flexibles against?
Is there a test method to verify if newly developed laminated flexibles are recyclable?
Therefore, it is our general recommendation that those questions are answered by an independent
authority.
Recently PRE-RecyClass released an evaluation protocol for flexible plastic packages that addresses
both questions [82]. The basis for these evaluation scheme appears to be industrial know-how of
incumbents. Although, this protocol is good first step forward, it still leaves a few questions
unanswered; what is the targeted market for recycled film product made in accordance with this
protocol and do all stakeholders agree with this interpretation.
Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037 | 33
7 Conclusions
Laminated flexible plastic packages form approximately 4% of the plastic packages and are
concentrated in sorted products such as sorted MIX and sorted Films in concentrations of 10-15%.
These laminated flexible packages are composed of multiple polymers and materials and hence by
their very nature are not-recyclable in a circular manner to new flexible film products. Additionally,
these laminates disperse over all the sorted products and although in most cases only present in low
concentrations, still cause polymeric contamination in those recycled plastics. Hence their presence
reduces the recyclability of well recyclable bottles, flasks, trays etc. This hinders the progress towards
a more circular economy for plastic packages.
On the other hand, these laminated flexible plastic packages serve an important role in our society, by
protecting the quality of food products and rendering these food products sufficiently shelf-stable to
allow for central production and distribution. To reduce the impact of the laminates on the plastic
recycling systems, a stepped approach is recommended (see Figure 3). First, producers should verify
that the laminates are truly necessary and cannot be avoided. Secondly, design-for-recycling
approaches should be tested to allow for a smooth integration in the current collection and recycling
system. Thirdly, changes in the collection, sorting and recycling processes should be tested to
evaluate if the laminates cannot fit into adjusted collection & recycling schemes. When all these
options fail, the laminate should be redesigned to be much more easily recognized and sorted. Hence
in the latter case, the benefit of laminate in the supply chain is acknowledged and it is accepted that
these packages are unfortunately still not recyclable, but to avoid polymeric contamination, the design
of the laminate is altered in such a manner that it is efficiently removed, added to the sorting residues
and incinerated. Accepting that a small fraction of all the plastic packages have an important function
but can still not be recycled in a circular manner, is vital to improve the quality of the recycled plastics
made from packages that are circular recyclable.
Figure 3 Towards circular laminated flexible packages
As a first step (agreement on) a precise definition of recyclability is needed to allow evaluation of the
recyclability of laminated flexible packages. This implies that a test method is needed to verify if newly
developed laminated flexibles are recyclable.
34 | Public Wageningen Food & Biobased Research-Report 2037
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Report 2037
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Flexible laminates within the circular
economy
Ulphard Thoden van Velzen, Lisanne de Weert, Karin Molenveld
... Flexible packaging containing aluminum is still considered by LWP waste sorters as a contaminant for recycled material and is the main cause of processing problems such as blockages of melt filters. In addition, aluminum in flexible packaging can lead to material losses during metal detection, as the metallic particles are sorted out of the line before the extruders and melt filters, in order to protect them [119]. Further, laminated and metalized aluminum leads to greying of the recyclate and is therefore not considered an optimal barrier material, but it is usually tolerated to some degree [119]. ...
... In addition, aluminum in flexible packaging can lead to material losses during metal detection, as the metallic particles are sorted out of the line before the extruders and melt filters, in order to protect them [119]. Further, laminated and metalized aluminum leads to greying of the recyclate and is therefore not considered an optimal barrier material, but it is usually tolerated to some degree [119]. For example, AlOx coatings do not significantly affect the quality of the secondary materials, as they are typically only 1-10 nm thick and therefore often do not exceed the tolerable limit of a maximum of 5% of the total weight of the packaging structure [88]. ...
... For example, AlOx coatings do not significantly affect the quality of the secondary materials, as they are typically only 1-10 nm thick and therefore often do not exceed the tolerable limit of a maximum of 5% of the total weight of the packaging structure [88]. Sorting solid metal objects, laminated films with solid aluminum layers, and laminated films with deposited aluminum layers into separate fractions would be desirable [119]. ...
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Sorting multilayer packaging is still a major challenge in the recycling of post-consumer plastic waste. In a 2019 Germany-wide field study with 248 participants, lightweight packaging (LWP) was randomly selected and analyzed by infrared spectrometry to identify multilayer packaging in the LWP stream. Further investigations of the multilayer packaging using infrared spectrometry and microscopy were able to determine specific multilayer characteristics such as typical layer numbers, average layer thicknesses, the polymers of the outer and inner layers, and typical multilayer structures for specific packaged goods. This dataset shows that multilayer packaging is mainly selected according to the task to be fulfilled, with practically no concern for its end-of-life recycling properties. The speed of innovation in recycling processes does not keep up with packaging material innovations.
... The major disadvantage of AL packaging is that it is considered unrecyclable (Horodytska et al., 2018;Slater and Crichton, 2011;Velzen et al., 2020), which in Europe is often indicated on the packaging by the sign "currently not recycled" i.e., the material is landfilled. But if AL packaging was recyclable, its LCA could be improved even further (Bayus et al., 2016;Bukowski and Richmond, 2018;Nonclercq, 2016;Xie et al., 2011). ...
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