09 MAR 2022 View in browser

CIRCULAR FoodPack – Circular packaging for direct food contact applications

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Welcome to the first CIRCULAR FoodPack Newsletter!

The EU-funded project aims to facilitate the circular use of plastic packaging addressing the most sensitive product category: Food. This sector contains up to 87 % of all European flexible plastic-plastic multi-layer packaging (MLP) due to high requirements for food preservation and safety.

The combination of several materials has been established and optimised in the past, with the different properties contributing to the optimal overall performance of the multi-layer pack. However, these materials are usually combined in such a way, that separation during recycling is not possible, which hinders recycling or leads to a poor quality of recyclates.

This project aims to optimise value retention in the economy, rather than downgrading the multi-layer materials for applications with low quality requirements compared to the value of the original separate materials. To achieve these goals and implement a new circular economy approach over 10 industrial partners and 4 international RTOs, which together represent the whole value chain, receives 5.37 million Euros of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, the European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

Analysis of European waste streams

Our CIRCULAR FoodPack project started in June 2021 with the characterisation of the European waste composition. This is highly relevant to start with, because it gives us an understanding of which kind of multi-layer material is ending up in the sorting facilities, into which fractions it is sorted and how it differs from country to country.

The sorting in sorting plants typically includes several steps (and even several plants) to separate mono-material from multi-material packaging waste. After all mono-material plastic has been sorted out, a residue fraction is left containing mainly multi-layer food packaging (MLP). This can make up to 20-30% of all post-consumer plastic waste collected and is usually destined for incineration. To enable a circular economy and to increase the recycling rates, this residue fraction must be well known in order to be reduced in the future. Therefore, the different MLP formats, which are currently found in the waste streams of France, Belgium and Germany, will be thoroughly analysed by the project partners.

SUEZ (FR) is characterizing the waste by manual sorting and visual inspection, and is classifying them into around 20 different categories comprising frozen food, dairy, meat and fish, but also transport and secondary packaging. Based on detailed examinations by targeted dissolution at Fraunhofer IVV (DE), a pie chart with the shares of the different materials in the stream will be set up. Moreover, we are looking at representative samples under the light microscope to find the actual layer structure of the films.

This investigation will give unprecedented insights on the current waste collection and sorting streams. It will be summarised in a report on the European waste stream.

Sorting technology development

Based on the findings of the waste analysis, the specification of the current sorting fractions will be started at IRIS (ES) within the next months. Advanced spectroscopic technologies (Sensor-Based-Specification) as an off-line identification approach will be set up. This approach will provide information on the presence of PE and other polymers in mono and multilayer materials which will be used later in the project to suggest suitable recycling process parameters.

Additionally, the development of fluorescent tracers by our partners Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (DE) and POLYSECURE (DE) is ongoing and in its testing phase. The incorporation of the tracers into the packaging material has been tested successfully and sorting trials are being prepared.

Interesting Facts - What is Polyethylene (PE) and why is it in the focus of this project?

Polyethylene, in short PE, is a thermoplastic produced from petrochemical ethylene gas. Being light and versatile at a relatively low price, PE is the most common plastic in use and the first choice material when it comes to the manufacturing of packaging films today.

There are many kinds of PE, but as such, mainly linear low density (LLDPE) and low density (LDPE) PE are the most widely used polymers in films, both as mono-materials and also in multi-materials. Together with Polypropylene (PP), PE belongs to the class of polyolefin. PE has very advantageous mechanical properties, good chemical resistance and many food-approved grades exist.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In Europe, the total estimated market in consumer households flexible packaging is about 3.9 Mio tonnes per year. Thereof, around 70% (3 Mio tonnes) are made of mono-polyethylene (PE), mono-polypropylene (PP), or a combination of both PE/PP.[1] Although (LD)PE itself is a material that can be sorted and recycled into secondary raw material, there are two main difficulties that need to be overcome towards a circular economy. It is not (yet) possible to recycle a combination of materials from a multi-layer packaging into high-quality recyclates. The mix of different polymers is usually inhomogeneous and varies in properties. This makes it difficult to produce a material fulfilling specified requirements. Additionally, it cannot be controlled until now to which substances the waste material has been in contact. This inhibits the re-use of such recyclates in delicate applications, since the rules on substances allowed for materials e.g. in food packaging applications, are very strict. Instead, recycled PE often finds its way into applications with a lower quality requirement like garbage bags or trash cans. For circularity, the recyclates are required to be used again in high-quality applications, similar to their primary life. 

Hence, it is the most reasonable feedstock to work within the project, which will focus on developing PE-based packaging suitable for true circularity. 

[1] CEFLEX Technical report, designing for a circular economy, June 2020 


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 101003806.

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