Everyone in the food and beverage industries is looking to find new ways to promote recyclability while keeping cost down. Dow Europe explains the initiatives it is working on to minimise waste while maximising profitability.
Flexible packaging - which includes plastic bags, sweet wrappers, frozen food bags and pouches - makes up nearly a third of consumer plastic packaging in the UK, and most of it ends up in landfill. By contrast, more than half of plastic bottles are recycled.
To address this, Dow's Value Chain in EMEA has teamed up with Manchester-based Axion Consulting to lead an exciting project that will significantly improve the recyclability of flexible packaging in the UK.
The two-year REFLEX scheme, funded by Innovate UK, aims to create a circular economy for packaging by incorporating the entire value chain, as well as the companies and organisations involved at end-of-life.
REFLEX (which includes collaboration with Dow's Pack Studios, converters Interflex and Amcor, Nestle and Unilever, and waste management and recycling specialists Tomra and Sita) will remove the obstacles that currently prevent flexible packaging from being recycled and, by doing so, enable recyclers to step in. At this point, end-of-life products become usable and can be diverted from landfill.
The project will include recyclable inks, new barrier polymers, novel packaging designs and the latest automated sorting technique, all of which will encourage packaging producers and consumers to view recycling not only as possible, but also as profitable.
Innovate UK's lead specialist for sustainability, Dr Mike Pitts, believes the project is likely to become a blueprint for other schemes and packaging producers. "It's very exciting, as it contains all the nodes of the new network needed to close the loop on this form of packaging," he says.
The vision of the project is to divert more than half of these materials from landfill.
The food industry is increasingly using barrier packaging to improve products' shelf lives. The incompatibility of polar and non-polar polymers present in these films, however, makes trims and scraps difficult to recycle. This means that converters end up giving the waste away at practically no value, as they are unable to reuse it, at a time when more attention than ever is being given to resource management and waste reduction.
Every year, millions of pounds of barrier scrap are generated globally, with most being sent to landfills, or sold for very little value. The reason for this is that, without a compatibiliser, pelletised barrier film scrap containing polar polymers - such as EVOH or Polyamide - will not finely disperse into the polyolefin matrix for recycling or reuse. There have been numerous attempts to find an adequate compatibiliser, but all have resulted in poor processability and insufficient optical properties - two critical performance requirements for many converters.
With the development of RETAIN polymer modifiers (a set of distinctive functional polmers), these problems are being successfully addressed, and the sustainability benefits and exceptional economies of recycling barrier scrap into high-quality films may now be realised.
Dow's innovative recycling technology is based on a reactive, ultra-low-viscosity compatibiliser. Reactive groups 'coat' the polar components, encapsulating them into micro-domains to enable excellent dispersion. When blended at specified ratios with pelletised barrier film recycle streams, the RETAIN polymers allow converters to recycle barrier trim back into film production without sacrificing optical or physical properties.
Thanks to Dow's technology, barrier film converters will be able to recycle all of their scrap. The upgraded material will be at least 15% cheaper than virgin polyethylene.
Dow's AGILITY Performance LDPE resins are designed to bring the best performance attributes of conventional autoclave and tubular into one resin. They offer customers a sustainable, long-term option that exceeds the performance targets of conventional autoclave LDPE resins. Dow has integrated this technology with its expanding global manufacturing footprint in the US Gulf Coast.
Based on the company's patented advanced tubular technology, AGILITY represents a new generation of packaging resins that have been developed to meet industry needs for higher line speed and optimal material use, as well as to offer an improved long-term supply versus autoclave.
AGILITY resins are proven to deliver improved performance standards, not only for extrusion coating and lamination, but also for cast and blown films and foams covering a wide range of applications.
These include: extrusion coatings for beverages, consumer and industrial packaging; extrusion laminates for food, pharma and medical packaging; performance polyolefin foams for protective logistics packaging; lamination films for food, beverages, home and personal care goods; collation shrink films for consumer packaging; frozen food packaging and stand-up pouches.
As well as promoting sustainability benefits, the resins offer benefits in terms of speed (enabling higher throughput on existing extrusion equipment), flexibility (offering solutions for multiple markets), aesthetics (delivering improved optics to meet the growing need for transparent packaging) and strength (requiring less LDPE in LDPE/LLDPE blends, improving physical properties while maintaining output).
To encourage packaging innovation, Dow introduced Pack Studios, a collaborative capability of Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, which helps accelerate packaging application projects through a global network of labs, experts and testing equipment. Currently, there are six Pack Studios centres around the globe - Freeport, Texas; Horgen, Switzerland; Mozzate, Italy; São Paulo, Brazil; Shanghai, China; and the newest location in Ringwood, Illinois, near Chicago. Each facility features a collaboration room to inspire problem solving, laboratory facilities for material development, and fabrication and testing equipment to validate packaging applications.
Customers and other members of the packaging value chain who visit Pack Studios have the opportunity to collaborate with a dedicated Dow technical team and a global network of industry professionals that have a wealth of experience in packaging application, materials and design.