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Recycling of Flexible Plastic Packaging

Recycling of Flexible Plastic Packaging

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Recycling of Flexible Plastic Packaging

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714 pages
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Dec 4, 2019


Recycling of Flexible Plastic Packaging presents thorough and detailed information on the management and recycling of flexible plastic packaging, focusing on the latest actual/potential methods and techniques and offering actionable solutions that minimize waste and increase product efficiency and sustainability. Sections cover flexible plastic packaging and its benefits, applications and challenges. This is followed by in-depth coverage of the materials, types and forms of flexible packaging. Other key discussions cover collection and pre-treatment, volume reduction, separation from other materials, chemical recycling, post-processing and reuse, current regulations and policies, economic aspects and immediate trends.

This information will be highly valuable to engineers, scientists and R&D professionals across industry. In addition, it will also be of great interest to researchers in academia, those in government, or anyone with an interest in recycling who is looking to further advance and implement recycling methods for flexible plastic packaging.

  • Presents state-of-the-art methods and technologies regarding the processing of flexible plastic packaging waste
  • Addresses the challenges currently associated with both waste management and available recycling methods
  • Opens the door to innovation, supporting improved recycling methods, manufacturing efficiency and industrial sustainability
Dec 4, 2019

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European Patent Office, Rijswijk, Netherlands

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Recycling of Flexible Plastic Packaging - Michael Niaounakis

Recycling of Flexible Plastic Packaging

Michael Niaounakis

Table of Contents

Cover image

Title page




1. Flexible Plastic Packaging and Recycling

1.1. Definition of Flexible Packaging

1.2. Flexible Packaging Categories

1.3. Selection Criteria of Flexible Packaging

1.4. Benefits of Flexible Plastic Packaging

1.5. Flexible Packaging versus Rigid Packaging

1.6. Limitations of Flexible Plastic Packaging

1.7. Recycling

1.8. Life Cycle Analysis

2. Environmental and Socio-Economic Effects

2.1. Description of the Problem

2.2. Degradation of Plastics in the Environment

2.3. Environmental Effects in Land

2.4. Environmental Effects at Sea

2.5. Socio-Economic Effects

3. Polymers Used in Flexible Packaging

3.1. Types of Polymers

3.2. Polyolefins

3.3. Polystyrene

3.4. Chloropolymers

3.5. Poly(Vinyl Alcohol)

3.6. Polyesters

3.7. Polyamides

3.8. Polysaccharides

3.9. Blends of Polymers

3.10. Polymers Used as Adhesives and Tie Layers

3.11. Polymers Used as Coatings/Sealants

3.12. Polymers Used as Inks

4. Types, Forms, and Uses of Flexible Plastic Packaging

4.1. Types of Flexible Plastic Packaging

4.2. Forms of Flexible Plastic Packaging

4.3. Applications of Flexible Plastic Packaging

5. Collection and Feedback

5.1. Collection

5.2. Sources of Flexible Plastic Packaging Waste

6. Separation/Sorting and Volume Reduction

6.1. Separation/Sorting

6.2. Volume Reduction

7. Solvent- and/or Chemical Agent-Based Separation

7.1. Stripping

7.2. Cleaning Solutions

7.3. Selective Dissolution

8. Post-processing and Reuse

8.1. Cleaning

8.2. Size Reduction

8.3. Agglomeration

8.4. Density/Gravity Techniques

8.5. Extrusion

8.6. Integrated Systems

8.7. Blending

8.8. Compounding

8.9. Reuse

9. Chemical Recycling

9.1. Types of Chemical Recycling

9.2. Solvolysis

9.3. Oxidative and Catalytic Depolymerization

9.4. Chemical Pyrolysis

9.5. Enzymatic Depolymerization

9.6. Recovery Options

10. Legislation and Regulatory Framework

10.1. EU Packaging Waste Legislation

10.2. EU Regulations on Plastic and Recycled Plastic Materials Intended to Come into Contact with Food

10.3. Regulative Measures in Other Countries

10.4. Regulatory Frameworks

10.5. Awareness Raising

11. Economic Evaluation and Trends

11.1. Market of Flexible Plastic Packaging

11.2. Economic Evaluations of Recycling

11.3. Markets of Recycled Flexible Plastic Packaging

11.4. Trends and Proposals

11.5. Projects

11.6. Initiatives



Series Editor: Sina Ebnesajjad, PhD (sina@FluoroConsultants.com)

President, FluoroConsultants Group, LLC, Chadds Ford, PA, United States


The PDL Handbook Series is aimed at a wide range of engineers and other professionals working in the plastics industry, and related sectors using plastics and adhesives.

PDL is a series of data books, reference works and practical guides covering plastics engineering, applications, processing, and manufacturing, and applied aspects of polymer science, elastomers, and adhesives.

Recent titles in the series

Polymeric Foams Structure-Property-Performance, Obi (ISBN: 9781455777556)

Technology and Applications of Polymers Derived From Biomass, Ashter (ISBN: 9780323511155)

Fluoropolymer Applications in the Chemical Processing Industries, 2e, Ebnesajjad & Khaladkar (ISBN: 9780323447164)

Reactive Polymers, 3e, Fink (ISBN: 9780128145098)

Service Life Prediction of Polymers and Plastics Exposed to Outdoor Weathering, White, White & Pickett (ISBN: 9780323497763)

Polylactide Foams, Nofar & Park (ISBN: 9780128139912)

Designing Successful Products With Plastics, Maclean-Blevins (ISBN: 9780323445016)

Waste Management of Marine Plastics Debris, Niaounakis (ISBN: 9780323443548)

Film Properties of Plastics and Elastomers, 4e, McKeen (ISBN: 9780128132920)

Anticorrosive Rubber Lining, Chandrasekaran (ISBN: 9780323443715)

Shape-Memory Polymer Device Design Safranski & Griffis (ISBN: 9780323377973)

A Guide to the Manufacture, Performance, and Potential of Plastics in Agriculture, Orzolek (ISBN: 9780081021705)

Plastics in Medical Devices for Cardiovascular Applications, Padsalgikar (ISBN: 9780323358859)

Industrial Applications of Renewable Plastics, Biron (ISBN: 9780323480659)

Permeability Properties of Plastics and Elastomers, 4e, McKeen (ISBN: 9780323508599)

Expanded PTFE Applications Handbook, Ebnesajjad (ISBN: 9781437778557)

Applied Plastics Engineering Handbook, 2e, Kutz (ISBN: 9780323390408)

Modification of Polymer Properties, Jasso-Gastinel & Kenny (ISBN: 9780323443531)

The Science and Technology of Flexible Packaging, Morris (ISBN: 9780323242738)

Stretch Blow Molding, 3e, Brandau (ISBN: 9780323461771)

Chemical Resistance of Engineering Thermoplastics, Baur, Ruhrberg & Woishnis (ISBN: 9780323473576)

Chemical Resistance of Commodity Thermoplastics, Baur, Ruhrberg & Woishnis (ISBN: 9780323473583)

Color Trends and Selection for Product Design, Becker (ISBN: 9780323393959)

Fluoroelastomers Handbook, 2e, Drobny (ISBN: 9780323394802)

Introduction to Bioplastics Engineering, Ashter (ISBN: 9780323393966)

Multilayer Flexible Packaging, 2e, Wagner, Jr. (ISBN: 9780323371001)

Fatigue and Tribological Properties of Plastics and Elastomers, 3e, McKeen (ISBN: 9780323442015)

Emerging Trends in Medical Plastic Engineering and Manufacturing, Schönberger & Hoffstetter (ISBN: 9780323370233)

Manufacturing and Novel Applications of Multilayer Polymer Films, Langhe & Ponting (ISBN: 9780323371254)

PEEK Biomaterials Handbook, 2e, Kurtz (ISBN: 9780128125243)

Fluoropolymer Additives, 2e, Ebnesajjad (ISBN: 9780128137840)

The Effect of UV Light and Weather on Plastics and Elastomers, 4e, McKeen (ISBN: 9780128164570)

To submit a new book proposal for the series, or place an order, please contact Edward Payne, Acquisitions Editor at edward.payne@elsevier.com


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A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress

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Flexible plastic packaging is the fastest growing segment of packaging worldwide. Its increasing popularity is attributed to the many benefits flexible plastic packaging offers when compared with traditional packaging formats. Flexible plastic packaging extends food shelf life and minimizes spoilage; reduces waste by preserving and protecting products until they are consumed; reduces material use; minimizes overall size and weight; lowers shipping costs; generates less greenhouse gases (GHG) than alternative packaging; provides easy printing; and provides an attractive appearance.

Flexible plastic packaging takes the shape of a bag, pouch, liner, or overwrap. Most types of flexible plastic packaging have complex structures (e.g., laminates), such as pouches. Nowadays, pouches are the most preferred format and account for the majority of the flexible plastic packaging. Food is the largest end-use industry accounting for nearly half of the flexible packaging used.

Despite all its positive attributes, the disposal of flexible plastic packaging poses a threat to the environment. A substantial amount of flexible plastic packaging materials are made into disposable items, which are typically discarded within a year of manufacture. Most of the discarded flexible packaging ends up in the mainstream of municipal waste and is disposed in a landfill or incinerated. Improperly disposed packaging films and plastic bags often end up in the sea creating an environment menace because of their bulkiness and nonbiodegradability. Negative image publicity with upsetting images of dead marine animals after ingesting or being entangled in plastic packaging debris heightened the awareness of the public about the impacts of plastic packaging on marine life.

Current flexible plastic packaging materials are neither sustainable, as they are derived from fossil fuel–based resources, nor recyclable, as most of them are made of multilayer structures (e.g. pouches). Existing life-cycle assessments (LCAs) often ignore disposal of flexible plastic packaging in the environment and pay more attention to GHG emissions than to end-of-life impacts.

Among the proposed solutions to tackle the disposal problem of flexible plastic packaging waste is the use of biodegradable plastics, thermal decomposition, and recycling (i.e. recovery of the polymer(s) or monomer(s)). Biodegradable plastics has the potential to improve environmental performance, but it might be half the solution because the favorable degradation conditions required for the composting of these materials are not always achieved in the sea and in other natural environments. Thermal decomposition involves pollution risks as result of gas emissions generated during incineration/pyrolysis, while conversion of the plastic waste to fuel has not yet reached optimal reusability.

For most applications, recycling seems to be the obvious choice in terms of saving resources and reducing pollution. However, recycling is not without problems. Flexible plastic packaging is usually made of multiple layers. Multilayer packaging is very difficult to recycle because it contains many incompatible polymers.

The proposed book aims to give a thorough and detailed presentation of the issues surrounding the management of flexible plastic packaging waste and investigate feasible methods and viable technologies to increase the recycling and diversion of this type of waste from disposal. It provides all the current developments and trends towards a sustainable and recyclable flexible plastic packaging.

The book consists of eleven chapters:

Chapter 1 gives a general overview of flexible plastic packaging. It also presents the benefits and limitations of flexible plastic packaging as they are reflected in LCA studies. Flexible packaging is also compared with rigid packaging. Emphasis is given to the recycling problem of flexible multilayer plastic packaging. Further, it describes the various options of recycling and the waste management hierarchies used by EU and US EPA.

Chapter 2 studies the environmental and socio-economic effects of flexible plastic packaging. At first, the various degradation modes including hydrolytic degradation, thermooxidative degradation, photodegradation, biodegradation, and mechanical degradation by which plastics can be degraded in the environment are presented. Further, the dire consequences that the uncontrolled disposal of flexible plastic packaging can have in land and at sea are discussed. The damages inflicted to marine animals (mammals, turtles, birds, and fishes) by entanglement in and ingestion of plastic packaging debris are also discussed. Finally, the social and economic impacts of plastic packaging litter on to marine ecosystems and various human activities such as fishing and aquaculture, shipping, recreational activities, and tourism are examined.

Chapter 3 examines the main polymers used in flexible packaging as films, coatings, sealants, adhesives/tie layers, and inks, in terms of sustainability and recyclability. While there many polymers utilized in the flexible packaging industry, the most common ones are polyolefins, including the various types of polyethylene and polypropylene, poly(ethylene terephthalate) and poly(vinyl chloride), and secondarily polyamides, ethylene vinyl alcohol, poly(vinylidene chloride), ethylene-vinyl acetate, and ionomers.

The used polymers are homopolymers, copolymers, or polymer blends and are usually compounded with various additives (e.g., antioxidants, plasticizers, moisture absorbers, colorants, and the like) to improve certain properties of the flexible packaging materials.

Chapter 4 examines the various types, forms, and uses of flexible plastic packaging. The two main types of flexible plastic packaging are single film or monolayer and multilayer packaging. The main forms of flexible plastic packaging are bags, wraps, pouches and sachets, air pillows and envelopes, labels and sleeves, straps, tapes and six pack rings, net bags, and woven bags. Flexible plastic packaging finds multiple uses in food and beverage, cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, medical, personal care and cosmetics, construction and building, e-commerce, and others.

Chapter 5 examines the main strategies employed for the collection of flexible plastic packaging. The three main sources of flexible plastic packaging waste are postconsumer (residential or household) derived from residences, postcommercial generated by businesses, and postindustrial generated during processing. Curbside collection is currently the least preferred manner for the collection of flexible packaging materials. Return collection centers or drop-off sites are the principal means for collecting films and bags. A considerable amount of scrap is generated in the course of manufacture of packaging films, such scrap coming from trimming from roll ends (edge trims or off-cuts), film breakages, filling custom orders involving less than the full width of rolls of the film, or rolls out of specification. It is an industry practice to feedback at least part of this type of flexible plastic packaging waste. Reprocessing of scrap film can take place either on the site of film production or at a remote location.

Chapter 6 examines the main technologies used for the separation and sorting of flexible plastic packaging in material recovery facilities (MRFs) and/or plastic recovery facilities (PRFs), including manual and vacuum-assisted manual sorting, air separators, screens, mainly ballistic screens, grabbers, marking and labeling systems, optical sorters, fluorescent additives, robotic sorters, eddy current separators, volume reduction, and baling.

Chapter 7 examines the solvent and/or chemical agent technology for the separation or delamination of multilayer packaging films. Stripping solvents are used for the dissolution or swelling of the interlayer binder (tie layer) and separation of the individual layers from a multilayer packaging film and/or chemical agents for the separation or delamination of the aluminum foil from plastic layers. Cleaning systems, which use solvent and/or aqueous surfactant solutions for removing printing inks, film additives, impurities, etc, from flexible plastic packaging waste are also described. Further, selective dissolution–based processes in organic solvents for the separation of commingled and multilayer postconsumer plastic packaging products, which usually are mixtures of polyolefins, such as polyethylenes, with other polymers are described. Solvent-based recycling is selective for polyolefins and generates pure and high-quality recovered polymers from mixed postconsumer waste.

A large number of patents have been disclosed for this technology, which are applicable to both flexible and rigid multilayer plastic packaging. Despite the large number of disclosed patents and research and industrial projects with promising preliminary results, the solvent and/or chemical agent technology is still not commercially used.

Chapter 8 examines the main stages of postprocessing of flexible plastic packaging comprising size deduction using shredders and granulators; mechanical cleaning including wet cleaning and dry cleaning for the removal of residual contamination; sorting of the different polymers by density/gravity techniques including float sink, hydrocyclones, and centrifuge; extrusion; blending including compatibilization and solid-state shear pulverization; and compounding. In addition, it describes various recycled products disclosed in patent literature and reviews the available commercial uses of recycled flexible plastic packaging materials.

Chapter 9 examines the chemical (or tertiary) plastic recycling technology by which at least one polymer of a plastic article is depolymerized to yield repolymerizable monomers and/or oligomers, which are recovered for producing new polymers. The chemical recycling of polymers aims mainly at saving the material resources and less at reducing the amount of waste generated by slowly degrading polymers.

The main types of chemical recycling are solvolysis and thermolysis. A special type of chemical recycling is enzymatic depolymerization. The available processes for the depolymerization of rigid plastic packaging and nonpackaging films (e.g., agricultural films), fibers, foams, etc., can be equally applied to the depolymerization of flexible plastic packaging.

Chemical recycling is a promising option to recycle mixed, multilayer, or other complex plastics. However, the technology is still at early stages of development and is not expected to be fully operational before 2025.

Chapter 10 examines the EU legislation (directives and regulations) related to flexible packaging and packaging waste. It also briefly reviews the legislation and regulative measures taken in selected countries and regions including the United States, the United Kingdom, China, India, and Southeast Asia. The two main frameworks that are applied in the packaging industry for the effective control of waste, namely the Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) and the Circular Economy (CE) are also examined. Further, the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) environmental policy approach is discussed, as well the obligations of the producers for the removal of single-use plastic products pursuant to the EPR provisions as described in Directive 2019/904/EU. Another policy framework that is considered is the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that holds accountable the manufacturers of goods that create post-consumer waste. Finally, the various programs, initiatives, and campaigns to raise awareness and encourage consumers to recycle packaging films and plastic bags are presented.

Chapter 11 reviews the global market of flexible plastic packaging and the markets of the main types of recycled film. Further, it investigates the main trends toward a sustainable and recyclable flexible plastic packaging including redesign, increase collection, improve sorting, new recycling technologies (e.g. use of compatibilizers, solvent separation and chemical recycling), alternative materials, such as bioplastics, the proposed measures to stimulate the market for recycled flexible packaging, and the four reuse models to reduce the need for single-use packaging. It also presents some legislative initiatives and recommendations for future legislation. Finally, a summary of the major programs/projects and reports for the recycling of flexible plastic packaging is given.

In this book, recycling is understood as the recovery of several components from flexible plastic packaging waste by mechanical, physical, chemical, and biological processes or their combination to convert them into monomers, oligomers, and/or polymers, which can be used, optionally in combination with virgin polymers, for the making of new products.

Decomposition (or destruction) recovery options such as incineration, pyrolysis, and gasification that convert flexible plastic packaging materials into energy, fuel, or chemicals do not fall under this recycling definition and are commented only in short.

Further, agricultural films and their recycling are outside the scope of this book.

Waste plastic bags—a form of flexible plastic packaging—have already been dealt in the author’s previous book: "Management of Marine Plastic Debris." In the present book, only the collection and recycling options of plastic bags are examined.

The writing of the book started in late autumn 2017. Till its completion in summer 2019, there were many changes in the waste management of flexible plastic packaging. Sustainable packaging materials, such as bioplastics, gained ground, and there were significant breakthroughs in recycling technologies and the design of recyclable flexible plastic packaging materials. At the same time, there were many coordinated efforts for the efficient collection of large amounts of flexible packaging waste. New legislation addressing the issue of single-use plastic packaging was launched by the EU, namely Directive 2019/904/EU, and regulative measures with far reaching consequences were taken by China and Southeast Asia countries in banning the import of plastic waste. SMM, CE, EPR and CSR are used nowadays for the effective control of flexible packaging waste.

Michael Niaounakis

July 2019, Rijswijk


Flexible Plastic Packaging and Recycling


This chapter gives a general overview of flexible plastic packaging. It also presents the benefits and limitations of flexible plastic packaging as they are reflected in life cycle assessment studies. Flexible packaging is also compared with rigid packaging. Emphasis is given to the recycling problem of flexible multilayer plastic packaging. Further, it describes the various options of recycling and the waste management hierarchies used by EU and US Environmental Protection Agency.


Benefits; Flexible plastic packaging; LCA; Limitations; Multilayers; Recycling; Rigid packaging; Waste management hierarchy

1.1. Definition of Flexible Packaging

The expression flexible packaging refers to packaging structures that are capable of being flexed or bent, such that they are pliant and yieldable in response to externally applied forces. Accordingly, the term flexible is substantially opposite in meaning to the terms inflexible, rigid, or unyielding. A packaging structure that is flexible, therefore, may be altered in shape to accommodate external forces and to conform to the shape of objects brought into contact with them without losing their integrity. As one of the fastest growing segments of the packaging industry, flexible packaging delivers a broad range of protective properties while employing a minimum amount of material. It typically takes the shape of a bag, pouch, liner, or overwrap.

1.2. Flexible Packaging Categories

Flexible packaging is typically described in relation to the type of product being packaged, for example, retail food, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, etc. It can also be categorized by layer/function. It is convenient to categorize packaging by layer or function:

• primary packaging—the material that first envelops the product and is in direct contact with the contents;

• secondary packaging—the material that is outside the primary packaging, often used to group primary packages together. Film wrappers around the primary packaging are examples of secondary packaging; and

• tertiary packaging—the material that is used for bulk handling, warehouse storage, and transport shipping. The most common form is a palletized unit that packs into containers.

These broad categories are arbitrary. For example, depending on the use, a shrink wrap can be primary packaging when applied directly to the product, secondary packaging when bundling smaller packages, and tertiary packaging on some palletized distribution packs.

1.3. Selection Criteria of Flexible Packaging

The main selection criteria for an optimum flexible packaging could be summarized as follows:

• product protection (performance)

• packaging cost

• usage benefits and

• environmental impact

Flexible packaging protects the enclosed product from damages (breakages, spoilages, contamination), extends shelf/usage life, safeguards hygiene, and provides an attractive appearance. Most flexible packaging has been optimized for minimum material usage for a given functionality. Flexible packaging reduces overall package size and weight, reduces shipping costs, and promotes fitting more products on a delivery truck. In most cases, flexible packaging materials are intended for single use.

Flexible packaging can be monolayer, coated monolayer, or multilayer. The layers are different material with specific functions in the structure and can include outer bulk layers, barrier layers, tie layers, and seal layers.

Polyethylene, including low density polyethylene (LDPE), linear low density polyethylene (LLDPE), and high density polyethylene (HDPE), is by far the most used polymer in the flexible packaging industry. Other polymers are polypropylene, including cast polypropylene and biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP), poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET), and poly(vinyl chloride) (PVC).

Polyethylene gives the packaging its bulk and structural integrity. For tougher packaging, a packaging company might opt for PET. Polyethylene can also be used to seal the package. But often lower melting point ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) is the better choice for that. And if the food inside the packaging is greasy, a food company might opt for a higher-end sealant ionomer, such as Surlyn® (DuPont, ex-Dow). Most food packaging needs a barrier layer to protect against oxygen. Ethylene-vinyl alcohol (EVOH) and poly(vinylidene chloride) (PVDC) are effective in blocking oxygen. If even more barrier is needed, a package might incorporate a metallized film [1]. Metalized films provide optimal protection for high oxygen, gas and water vapor barrier levels, aroma, and flavor retention. Metalized films can also provide special optical properties or a metal look for decorative applications.

There is demand to replace part of these films, especially those used for packaging goods with a short shelf life (e.g., food packaging, waste bags) with films made of biodegradable polymers. The most commonly used polymers in plastic packaging are made of fossil fuel–based resources and degrade very slowly in the environment. Packaging materials made of bio-based polymers address the concerns about depletion of natural resources and greenhouse gas (GHG) generation effects. Bio-based polymers are expected—once fully scaled-up—to help reduce reliance on fossil fuels, reduce production of GHGs, and be biodegradable or compostable as well. Packaging is the biggest application for bio-based and biodegradable polymers nowadays [2].

1.4. Benefits of Flexible Plastic Packaging

The food and beverage market is flexible packaging's largest end user segment, although healthcare has become the fastest growing. Flexible packaging is used in almost every consumer goods section. The benefits of flexible plastic packaging can be summarized as follows [3]:

• Less material needed for production.

• Uses less energy to produce and less plastic than rigid containers.

• Lighter weight allowing transport of higher volumes of product.

• Generates less CO2 during transportation.

• Creates less waste and takes up less space in the landfill.

• Extends the shelf life of many products, especially food.

• Maintains freshness.

• Provides efficient product-to-package ratios.

• Reduces food waste.

• Creates self-appeal.

• Enables visibility of the contents.

• Easy to open, carry, store, and reseal (convenience).

• Extensible into diverse product categories.

1.5. Flexible Packaging versus Rigid Packaging

Consumer, retail, and technology trends have contributed to a gradual replacement of rigid formats by flexible packaging types, mainly pouches, during the last decade. Flexible plastic packaging is widely used instead of (semi-)rigid plastic packaging because of its flexible convenient format, low weight, durability, cost effectiveness, attractiveness, and its easiness to be shaped. In particular, flexible packaging uses less energy and fewer resources, helps extend food shelf life, minimizes spoilage, brings savings in transportation costs and gas emissions, and reduces food waste. To the consumer it takes up less space when empty than rigid packaging [4]. According to the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), the flexible packaging uses 50% less energy to produce and 60% less plastic than rigid bottles [5] (see Fig. 1.1).

With flexible packaging such as pouches, the converting of the pouch generally includes full printing features along with the lamination of the films, if necessary. This printing only marginally increases the cost of the pouch and has no effect on the filling process itself. Printing options for flexible packaging are numerous and can be changed if required. On the other hand, part of the total cost of rigid packaging is the labels, which are applied as part of the filling process. Labels are supplied from a different supplier than the bottles, meaning that they often become a bottleneck in the filling process [7].

Further, flexible packaging can be printed with security or brand identity graphics. This technology includes pigment additives that only appear under certain lighting and inks that disappear and reappear depending on environmental conditions. Such technology is not possible with rigid packaging [7].

Figure 1.1 Flexible plastic packaging versus rigid packaging. 

Courtesy of Enval Ltd., 2019. The Enval process [6].

One of the main advantages of flexible packaging over rigid packaging is the ability to fine-tune the appropriate barrier level for the product and end use. Bottles made from PET, glass, or multilayer paperboard laminates provide a barrier for all products whether it is required or not. A flexible package can be supplied with barrier properties that can provide anything from moisture and aroma protection to essentially the same barriers as glass [7].

As far as recycling is concerned, the main differences between flexible plastic packaging and rigid plastic packaging can be summarized as follows:

• Most households have access to a rigid plastics packaging recovery system (e.g., PET bottles), while similar services for domestic consumers of flexible plastic packaging are still in their infancy [8].

• Many municipalities do not accept flexible packaging in curbside recycling bins. Plastic films and bags must be taken to a drop-off location, such as a grocery or other retail store, to be collected for recycling (see also Chapter 5; Section 5.2.2).

• Multilayer flexible packaging structures, such as pouches, are not recyclable.

• The recycling rate of flexible packaging is less than 1%, while the rigid packaging is around 40% [8].

1.6. Limitations of Flexible Plastic Packaging

The most commonly used polymers in plastic packaging are made of fossil fuel–based resources and degrade very slowly in the environment. Unlike rigid plastic packaging (e.g., PET bottles), there is no established recovery facilities for flexible packaging. The lack of recycling infrastructure, largely because of problems of collection, sorting, and recycling of films and multilayer structures, particularly arising from postconsumer waste, is the main limitation of flexible plastic packaging. Actually, lack of recycling is the Achilles' heel of flexible plastic packaging. The problem of disposal is especially acute with the flexible multilayer packaging waste.

Up to date, packaging films can be recovered from plastic waste streams by recycling technologies requiring sorting of the commingled plastic materials. Sorting can require use of costly techniques, such as video cameras, electronic devices, infrared detectors, and organic markers, to provide effective segregation of like plastics. However, even sorted scrap film can present problems in processing as a result of density and chemical differences among polymers falling in the same general class and made by different plastics manufacturers.

Further, sorted scrap film must be subjected to shredding and/or grinding to produce flake scrap material that, then, must be pelletized and ground again to provide powder feedstock for blow molding, rotational molding, extruding, spray coating, and other melt processing techniques that require powder feedstock.

The high cost of sorting has greatly limited widespread use of recycling approaches that require a sorting step. In particular, collected and sorted postconsumer plastic materials are usually more expensive than the corresponding virgin plastic materials. Thus, users of plastic materials are discouraged from using sorted, recycled plastic materials.

While flexible packaging films are favored by brands for their ability to efficiently transport products with minimal packaging waste, they are rejected by recyclers because of their sorting difficulties at material recovery facilities (MRFs) [9]. Recyclers do not accept postconsumer flexible packaging, due to the fact that 80% of the flexibles are food contaminated—food waste contamination levels are often 10%–20% of package weight—and as such unsuitable to go into their existing recycling stream as it will contaminate the final recyclate. This contamination makes the recyclate unacceptable for first-grade applications [10]. Further, packaging films have the tendency to get tangled and clogged in the sortation equipment at MRFs (see Chapter 6, Section 6.1).

1.6.1. The Problem of Flexible Multilayer Plastic Packaging

Up to today, there is no proper system or technology available for the economical recycling of disposed multilayer flexible packaging [10]. There are several reasons for this:

• large variety of materials used for each layer;

• large differences in the processing properties of the polymers used for multilayer films;

• lack of systems for identification of multilayer film;

• lack of system solutions for the collection of these materials;

• lack of economically viable systems of separation of the various materials; and

• lack of standard research of the properties, processing, and applications of composites based on recycled multicomponent materials.

In principle, it is not the technology that makes it difficult to recycle flexible multilayer packaging, but the selection process. In other words, every single flexible packaging layer has to be analyzed and categorized, separated, and recycled individually to recover a maximum of every component to further convert into a recyclate, which increases the overall recycling cost; especially, the different material components used in flexible pouches makes their recycling practically impossible to implement, too complicated, and too risky in terms of investment [10].

There is as yet no commercial facility in the world that can recycle flexible multilayer packaging or metalized films. For example, while PET recycling industry has been established for several decades and accepted as the most leading recycled material, metalized PET films are discarded as waste and end up in the landfill.

Multilayer packaging is composed of a mixture of incompatible polymers and cannot be recompounded without the use of expensive modifiers. In addition to that, the products obtained by recompounding such materials exhibit worse mechanical properties than pure polymers and their compatible polymer blends.

The bulk of flexible plastic packaging are printed, labeled, or decorated for providing usage instructions to meeting statutory requirements (labeling, price details, manufacture details, ingredients, trademarks, and safety information among others) or for esthetic, branding, and differentiation reasons. The removal of the inks, adhesives, coatings, or labels used is not an easy task.

1.7. Recycling

Recycling refers to the recovery of several components from a waste flexible plastic packaging by mechanical, physical, chemical, and biological processes or their combination to convert them into monomers, oligomers, and polymers, which can be used, optionally in combination with virgin polymers, for the making of new products. This process is often, although not quite correctly, called a cradle-to-cradle recycling.

The EU's waste management hierarchy [11] (Fig. 1.2) places prevention, reuse, and recycling (including composting) clearly above recovery options (e.g. waste to energy and incineration), while waste disposal (e.g. landfilling) is the very last resort.

The US EPA waste management hierarchy [12] (Fig. 1.3) places source reduction first and recycling/composting second on its list of preferable waste management strategies.

Dumping the flexible plastic packaging waste in landfills is impractical. Plastic waste degrades very slowly and takes up a significant amount of landfill space. Further, the land available for waste disposal is quickly disappearing. Therefore, burying such waste does not significantly contribute to the elimination of disposed plastic packaging products. Incineration is also impractical. It is expensive, and not all of the toxic or near toxic emissions can be captured or scrubbed out of the resulting fumes. This is especially true of packaging materials composed of a variety of different plastics.

Beyond the obvious environmental benefits, there are practical gains to companies that recycle flexible packaging films. The removal and recycling of flexible packaging films from the waste stream reduces the volume needed to be taken away from their facility and their waste bill. Many recycling companies pay for the used packaging film. Flexible packaging film waste takes up less space than other types of packaging such as corrugate paper waste, meaning less frequent deliveries and recycling pickups and, therefore, less transport costs. Because the bulk of plastic packaging is made of polyethylene, which is derived from natural gas, it uses less energy to produce and recycle compared, for example, with corrugate paper [14].

Figure 1.2 Waste management hierarchy of the European Union (EU) [11].

Figure 1.3 Waste management hierarchy of US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Courtesy of United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) [13].

According to the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), an item is recyclable per APR definition when the following three conditions are met [15]:

• at least 60% of consumers or communities have access to a collection system that accepts the item;

• the item is most likely sorted correctly into a market-ready bale of a particular plastic meeting industry standard specifications, through commonly used MRFs and plastic recovery facilities (PRFs), including single-stream and dual-stream MRFs' and PRFs', systems that handle deposit system containers, grocery store rigid plastic, and film collection systems; and

• the item can be further processed through a typical recycling process cost effectively into a postconsumer plastic feedstock suitable for use in identifiable new products.

According to the Global Plastics Outreach Alliance definition [16], an item is considered recyclable if it meets the following conditions:

• the item must be made with a plastic that is collected for recycling, has market value, and/or is supported by a legislatively mandated program;

• the item must be sorted and aggregated into defined streams for recycling processes;

• the item can be processed and reclaimed/recycled with commercial recycling processes; and

• the recycled plastic becomes a raw material that is used in the production of new products.

The properties of the discarded plastics are varied widely due to numerous suppliers, each of which uses proprietary additive packages, fillers, etc. It has been established that it is not possible to control the consistency of the discarded feedstocks before recycling. Because mixed (commingled) plastics are incompatible with one another, their reprocessing presents numerous challenges, including phase separation in the melt, delamination of molded parts, and inconsistent color, among others.

1.7.1. Types of Recycling

Recycling processes for plastics can be classified in a variety of ways. Depending on the final product (polymer, monomer/oligomer), the recycling processes of plastic waste can be classified into four categories (see Table 1.1).

Primary recycling involves the recycling of preconsumer industrial (in-plant) plastic scrap (see Chapter 5, Section The recycled scrap or waste is either mixed with virgin plastic or used as second-grade material with less demanding specifications. Secondary recycling involves the recycling of postconsumer and postcommercial plastic waste. Tertiary recycling involves the chemical treatment of plastic waste, whereby the recovered chemical compounds are used for making new polymers (see Chapter 9). Biological recycling involves the depolymerization by enzymes or microorganisms of plastic waste and use of the recovered chemical compounds for making new polymers.

Quaternary recycling or energy recovery or valorization is not considered to be true recycling and is outside the scope of the book.

Table 1.1

An alternative categorization is mechanical and chemical or feedstock recycling [18]. Mechanical recycling uses mechanical processes to convert the plastic to a useable form, thus encompassing the primary and secondary processes outlined above. In mechanical recycling, plastics stay intact, and this permits, in theory, for multiple reuse of plastics in the same or similar product—effectively creating a closed-loop.

To mechanically recycle postconsumer flexible plastic packaging, the waste has to be collected, separated/sorted, baled, shipped, washed, shredded/ground, and reprocessed before it can be mixed with virgin plastics of the same type for molding new products or used on its own for alternative (usually lower value) products (see Chapters 5, 6, and 8). In practice, the mechanical recycling of the recycled product over repeated cycles downgrades

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