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12 Dec 2023

It’s a wrap! Key takeaways from the “Circularity for Food Packaging” Conference

On 23 November 2023, the CIRCULAR FoodPack project welcomed 85 participants in the premises of the Fraunhofer Institute for Packaging and Process Engineering in Freising, Germany for its first Conference on “Circularity for Food Packaging”.

After a warm welcome by the moderators Swantje Eissing and Nelly Freitag (both Fraunhofer IVV), Esra Kücükpinar (Fraunhofer IVV and CIRCULAR FoodPack coordinator) gave an overview of the project. She was pleased to be able to present the recent achievement of another milestone: For the first time, a sortable and recyclable laminate with 50% PE PCR content, technically suitable for flexible food packaging applications, was demonstrated on an industrial scale at project partner Amcor. Further challenge tests on the novel technologies, which are combined in a new recycling cascade, will follow to demonstrate the cleaning efficiencies.

Wolfgang Trunk presented the Commission’s proposal on the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) at European level. The objective is to enforce legal requirements as an incentive for EU Member States and industry to promote investments in the plastics recycling value chain as well as in research and development activities. The aim is for all packaging (including reusable packaging) to be recyclable by 2030 (More time is to be given for applications in contact with food and for medical packaging.). The European Parliament’s vote from 22 November on the Commission’s proposal provoked outrage among the audience since the Members of the European Parliament proposed a reduction of the 10% PCR content minimum for plastics other than rPET in food contact applications. The further developments during the Trilogue between European Commission, European Parliament and the European Council will be closely followed by the CIRCULAR FoodPack project.

Peter Sandkühler (Dow) completed these political insights with the perspective from international industry. He pointed out that there is enormous potential for innovation in the field of recycling in Europe, as a large proportion of plastic waste is still incinerated. To make use of this innovation potential for circular (food) packaging, a technology-open approach is required that considers solvent-based, chemical and mechanical recycling as complementary elements. The European industry would need to continue to invest in innovation activities in order to remain competitive with its technologically strong counterparts around the world.

These external contributions were followed by presentations focussing more on the developments of CIRCULAR FoodPack. Starting the session on waste collection and sorting, Virginie Decottignies (Suez) underlined the importance of improved waste collection for increased recycling rates. Simple sorting instructions for household waste, more collection points and incentives for deposits might be possible solutions to that issue. In addition, more research on waste feedstock would be crucial to better understand their composition and analyse potential contaminants. For Virginie, it is also important to collaborate with the industry to fulfil market criteria on waste feedstock. Jochen Moesslein (Polysecure) pointed out the lack of quality and precision of the current sorting systems. With only 34.6 % of the collected waste sorted well enough to be sent to a recycler, improved sorting is crucial for higher recycling rates and recyclate quality. The Tracer-Based-Sorting developed by Polysecure can play an important role in this sector, as it can be easily adapted to different waste management systems.

Martin Schlummer (Fraunhofer IVV) opened the session on technologies for recycling plastics. Referring to the PPWR, he warned that more waste on the market without having the necessary tools to treat it would not lead to better recycling. He opts for a pull effect, where enhanced collection, sorting and recycling systems will produce high-quality material that is attractive for further investment in recycling infrastructure. As the market demands high performance PCR, which should come in close-to virgin material quality being colourless, odourless and without contaminants, further research and innovation measures to improve PCR quality are essential since these demands cannot yet be met. Within CIRCULAR FoodPack, dissolution (CreaSolv®), deinking and delamination are the approaches that are considered to have high potential. Steven De Meester (Ghent University) is focussing his research on deinking and delamination. Currently, extrusion of e.g. formerly blue printed but deinked PE PCR material leads to a blueish recyclate due to readsorption of the blue pigment of the ink used. To solve this issue, Steven calls for more basic research and a closer stakeholder cooperation with subsequent up-scaling of deinking developments. Marcus Vogt (Kreyenborg) concluded the recycling session by answering the question of how to remove the odour of the recyclates. He presented their solution for rPET, which makes it possible to reuse the recyclate in food contact applications. However, transferring this result to polyolefins remains challenging. According to him, a high surface area of the material is the most important factor for effective decontamination. Therefore, investigations on flake vs. granulate deodorisation are being performed within the project.

Coming to the design for recycling, Ralf Leineweber (Siegwerk) pointed out that the removal of inks is crucial to get almost colourless recyclates. This issue can be solved by a primer technology for effective delamination and deinking. Siegwerk contributes further to the development of PVC-free inks for better recyclate-quality without hazardous contamination  in new mono-PE structures. Diana Kemmer (Fraunhofer IVV) focussed on the challenge of regulations for recycled plastics in her presentation. The establishment of regulations usually takes time and often lags behind the development of innovative technologies. Even with the new regulation 2022/1616, there is still no clear EFSA evaluation criteria for functional barrier concepts, which currently fall under “novel technologies”. These concepts need to be experimentally tested and proven to function. Therefore, the CIRCULAR FoodPack project is developing and measuring innovative functional barrier concepts and will propose an approach for evaluation. At the end of the design for recycling session, Nicolas Mys (Amcor) gave a more in-depth presentation on the packaging laminate that was newly developed within the project. Design is a central element of circular packaging, with functional barriers and proper decontamination of the recyclate being the key elements in the development of PCR-containing flexible food packaging materials.

To complete the value-chain, Sophie Huysveld (Ghent University) focused on the Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA) to evaluate environmental, economic and social aspects of the product’s lifecycle. Challenges of her work lie especially in the limited availability and complexity of data. Therefore, assessing emerging technologies remains challenging and results need to be evaluated carefully in the right context. She opts for the acceptance of uncertainty – not everything can be simplified. Consequently, it is even more important that policy level and industry are informed about the current developments and learn about the environmental, economic and social potential impact of these novel technologies.

The close link between research, industry and the policy-level and the importance of strong collaboration along the whole recycling value chain was also one of the elements emphasized by Keti Medarova-Bergstrom (European Research Executive Agency) at the end of the conference while referring on how the European Union is supporting the related research and innovation activities.

After a full day of interesting presentations and stimulating discussions, there were four conclusions that speakers and participants seemed to agree on:

  • Closer collaboration between research, industry and EU policy level along the whole value chain of a circular plastics economy is required to achieve circularity in plastics packaging.
  • Ambitious political targets need to be formulated and specified for the industries related to the value chain of packaging and packaging waste.
  • A clear and stable legal framework is needed to allow long-term investments in innovative collection & sorting systems as well as recycling technologies.
  • A more complementary approach is required in which different sorting and recycling technologies are combined with each other to deploy their full potential.