Plastic packaging is a true all-rounder: For example, it is lighter than other materials and thus helps to save CO2 emissions during transport. They extend the shelf life of food and thus reduce its waste. With their properties, plastic packaging makes an important contribution to climate neutrality, resource conservation and environmental protection. On the downside, packaging requires finite raw materials and generates a large amount of packaging waste that ends up in the environment. Critically questioning which packaging is actually needed and a functioning circular economy can resolve this conflict.
"Consumers worldwide are just learning that packaging is a recyclable material that must be returned to the cycle. The industry is now challenged to establish clever solutions to recycle recyclates in the cycle," says Dr. Tim Pohl, responsible for Sustainability and New Business Development at Reifenhäuser. "Processing mechanically reprocessed recycled plastics not only conserves natural resources, but also reduces the carbon footprint of a packaging," explains Pohl.
Increasing recycled content: Challenges and ways
Plastics producers are increasingly being called upon to increase recycled content in their products. In doing so, they are often caught between sustainability and economic efficiency. The balancing act can be mastered with highly flexible extrusion lines and robust components from the Reifenhäuser Group because they safely process a wide range of recycling raw materials.
To achieve a circular economy for plastics, do not landfill raw materials.
Since 2006, the amount of post-consumer plastic waste sent for recycling has risen continuously in the EU.
Not even half of the post-consumer plastic packaging waste from households, industry and commerce is recycled.
But just one look at current recycling rates shows that a functioning circular economy for plastic packaging is a huge project: According to the European association of plastics producers, Plastics Europe, 46 percent of post-consumer plastic packaging waste from households, industry and commerce is currently recycled on average in the EU.
This proportion is set to rise, but in small steps: to 50 percent by 2025 and 55 percent by 2030 (Directive (EU) 2019/852 on packaging and packaging waste). That's because there are still numerous hurdles on the road to a higher recycling rate: from the task of generating enough recyclates that can be reprocessed several times into new products to a host of legal requirements for the recovery of recycled goods. The good news for manufacturers of packaging plastics is that they have some important levers for the recyclability of their packaging in their own hands.
Producers are thus already setting the course for a functioning circular economy at the packaging design stage: "Design for recycling" aims to design packaging materials in such a way that they can be recovered for further use. A lot has already been done in this area in recent years: according to a survey by GVM Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung on behalf of IK Industrievereinigung Kunststoffverpackungen, 81 percent of all household plastic packaging in Germany was recyclable or reusable in 2020. In 2016, the figure was only 66 percent.
A paradigm shift: "Previously, aspects such as appearance, price or the shelf life of foodstuffs were the main factors in packaging design when selecting materials," says Dr. Pohl. "Now, recyclability and recycled content are added to the mix. That means manufacturers will rethink their packaging design." And time is of the essence: The EU Plastics Strategy mandates that all plastic packaging placed on the market in the European Union from 2030 onward must be recyclable or can be recycled cost-effectively.
"Manufacturers will rethink their packaging design"
Paper-plastic composites are currently highly popular with consumers as an alternative to pure plastic packaging. A study conducted by the Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (GVM) on behalf of the IK Industrievereinigung Kunststoffverpackungen (Industrial Association for Plastic Packaging) in 2021 confirmed that paper composites pose problems when it comes to recycling. Dr. Isabell Schmidt, IK managing director and expert in circular economy, said at the presentation of the study: "Replacing plastic packaging with paper composites is greenwashing. If the special properties of plastic as a material are what matters in packaging, then paper fibers should be dispensed with completely and fully recyclable plastic packaging should be chosen."
So far, packaging consisting of a mix of materials, such as paper-plastic composites and many plastic multilayer packaging, especially those with barrier layers, is not recyclable or is difficult to recycle. The different layers ensure different mechanical or optical properties of a package. This structure is good for the function but at the same time a problem for recycling: The layers often consist of different raw materials that usually cannot be separated from each other again.
However, the more heterogeneous the recycling material is, the more difficult it is to produce a new plastic product with specific properties from it again. In addition, not all raw materials are chemically compatible with each other - and then they cannot be processed into a new product at all. So the only option for mixed packaging waste is often thermal recycling.
In contrast, single-material packaging is easy to recycle. Switching packaging design to monomaterial composites is therefore a major lever for manufacturers. The decisive factor when switching to mono-material packaging is that the products, in addition to being recyclable, also meet the diverse technical specifications of the packaging industry. As a machine manufacturer, Reifenhäuser has solutions that allow both requirements to be combined.
PE monomaterial composites (all-PE film) for flexible packaging
For flexible packaging, there is a promising alternative to the established composites made of several films, i.e. raw materials: In PE mono-material composites (all-PE film), different PE films can fulfill the functions that are important for further processing and subsequent packaging. Such mono-film composites can be produced with the help of the patented EVO Ultra Stretch stretching unit for blown film lines from Reifenhäuser Blown Film. Stretching gives PE films new mechanical properties, such as higher stability. In stand-up pouches, for example, stretched PE film can replace PET film.
Pouch with barrier effect for food packaging
A further development of the all-PE mono-pouch is a fully recyclable pouch with a barrier effect against oxygen and water vapor that is suitable for packaging food. The necessary barrier effect is achieved by an EVOH content of less than five percent - a prerequisite for full recycling. This is made possible by the patented EVO Ultra Stretch stretching unit for Reifenhäuser blown film lines: it increases the barrier effect of the EVOH by stretching. The proportion of EVOH can thus be halved with the same barrier effect.
Film/nonwoven composites for bulk packaging
Nonwoven film laminates made of PP monomaterial are a fully recyclable solution for bulk materials such as cement, grain or animal feed and can replace paper-film laminates in this application. For the production of high-performance nonwoven film composites, the Reicofil RF5 BiCo spunbond line is combined with an extrusion coating line from Reifenhäuser Cast Sheet Coating. The material offers a better moisture barrier than paper-film composites and a higher-quality feel than standard film packaging. The composite can also be used for medical packaging as it allows steam sterilization of the already packaged products.
Film/nonwoven composites for protective clothing
Coatings are also a door opener for monomaterial composites in many other applications. Reifenhäuser Cast Sheet Coating has developed the pioneering extrusion coating process "Ultrathin Coating" especially for medical protective clothing. This enables customers to produce particularly lightweight film/nonwoven composites made of PP monomaterial at lower cost and thus competitively.
BOPP food packaging
Monostructure films made of CPP and BOPP are fully recyclable and FDA-compliant. This makes them suitable for the production of food packaging, such as pouches. The film leaves nothing to be desired in terms of transparency, stiffness and abrasion resistance. Value Cast lines with an MDO for stretching the film are used for production.
Adapting packaging design is only one lever for more recyclable packaging. Another is at the end of their life: the better sorted waste from households, industry and commerce is, the easier it is to recycle. To make this happen, manufacturers can improve the traceability of plastic packaging.
The recycling of PET bottles in Germany shows how well recycling streams can work: Since the introduction of the mandatory deposit in 2003, 98 percent of PET bottles are now returned to retailers, according to the PET Forum. As a result, pure recycling material is available in large quantities that can be well reprocessed into new bottles, industrial films or textile fibers.
However, such well-organized recycling streams exist primarily in industry and commerce - in the post-consumer sector, on the other hand, in very few cases. Much (food) packaging ends up soiled and poorly separated in consumers' trash cans. The problem is that today's waste sorting systems cannot distinguish reliably enough between recyclable and non-recyclable packaging. As a result, even fully recyclable products end up in thermal recycling and are thus lost to the circular economy.
This is where the R-Cycle initiative comes in, which the Reifenhäuser Group founded together with other technology companies and organizations. The interdisciplinary team has brought an open traceability standard for sustainable plastic packaging to market maturity. This makes recycling-relevant information transparent for the entire value stream chain by providing a Digital Product Passport.
The concept has already won the German Award for Sustainability Projects and pays tribute to the EU's "Action Plan for the Circular Economy" published at the beginning of 2020. With more than 50 measures, this is intended to ensure that plastic packaging is traceable and thus more recyclable in the future.
The R-Cycle Community is open to any company, organization or individual with an interest in the circular economy for the plastic packaging value chain. Members gain access to a broad network of application-experienced partners and know-how on digitalization and sustainability. The aim is to realize own applications, generate benefits by networking the value chain and jointly establish R-Cycle worldwide.
And this is how the process works (see graphic below): All recycling-relevant data is stored during production (1), further processing (2) and filling (3) and can be retrieved via machine-readable codes on the packaging. After the packaging has been used by the end consumer (4), it is recognized in the recycling process (5). Retrieval of the recycling-relevant data enables sorting by type (6) and thus reuse of the plastic in high-quality applications. "This process is the basis for obtaining high-quality recyclates to build a functioning circular economy," says R-Cycle Director Dr. Benedikt Brenken.
Numerous R-Cycle pilot projects are already underway worldwide. "Manufacturers also benefit economically from the Digital Product Passport," says Dr. Brenken. For example, precise information about the starting materials helps to speed up and optimize production, while the recording of product properties represents added value for customers in the downstream value chain. In addition, the Digital Product Passport facilitates the fulfillment of legal information requirements, such as in the calculation of the carbon footprint, proof of recycled materials or in the area of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
"Digitalization and sustainability are two megatrends that we are linking beneficially with R-Cycle," emphasizes Dr. Brenken. "The use of a digital product passport, as also required by the European Union, offers enormous potential for increasing the recycling rate of plastic packaging."
„ Digitalization and sustainability are two megatrends that we are linking beneficially with R-Cycle.“
But the key question for a functioning circular economy is not just whether plastic packaging is recycled - but into what. "We need more fields of application in which used plastic substitutes for virgin material," says Reifenhäuser's sustainability expert Dr. Tim Pohl. If the circular economy is to work, recycled packaging must be turned back into a product of the highest possible quality. So, for example, a sophisticated packaging solution or even a durable product such as a roofing underlayment. But up to now, recycling has usually meant a loss of quality in the raw material
Machine builders are therefore working on technologies that enable producers to process recyclates into ever higher-quality products. For example, Reifenhäuser has already proven in trials with the Dual System and projects with customers that producers can safely process a wide range of recyclates with the EVO Fusion twin screw blown film line - also into new film.
But for this to be used for more than just garbage bags, the construction industry and industrial packaging, different regulatory requirements are needed in some cases - and definitely a rethink in the market. "You can tell that recycled film is recycled. For a long time, that was not acceptable," says Dr. Pohl. Here, however, a rethinking is currently taking place among both manufacturers and brand owners, he adds. "When the focus is no longer on appearance but primarily on function, new fields of application will open up for materials with a high recycled content," the expert is certain, adding that a second life as packaging will then also be possible. "This is then the great opportunity for plastics to be more sustainable than other products, for example also as paper, because you can even cycle them several times.
The plastics industry is researching better recycling processes, for example, more environmentally friendly technologies for chemical recycling. According to the IK Industrievereinigung Kunststoffverpackungen, "Chemical recycling could close a gap in the recycling management of plastic packaging in the future. Namely, if it succeeds in recycling heavily soiled and mixed plastic waste that could previously only be recovered as energy. However, this still requires further research and development work."