Interface Polymers Ltd. and Flexipol Ltd. have jointly won funding through a competition run by UKRI’s Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging challenge.
The £850K grant is to finance a 24-month collaborative project entitled ‘Recycle Ready’ multi-layer barrier plastic packaging films, aimed at the development of fully recyclable LDPE multi-layer packaging suitable for upcycling into high-value applications.
The project brings together Interface Polymers’ internationally patented surface functionality Polarfin additive technology that overcomes inherent molecular level non-compatibility between polyolefins to enable them to be recycled, and Flexipol’s film technology expertise and flexible packaging manufacturing capabilities.
Using Interface Polymers’ compatibility enabling di-block copolymer additive, the project is looking to build in recyclability as an integral part of originally manufactured multi-layer domestic and commercial packaging product formulations that can be viably scaled up. The aim is to provide a new range of Recycle Ready multi-layer packaging with a recyclability classification that will allow the waste to be collected and 100% reclaimed via existing pure stream reprocessing centres instead of being incinerated or sent to a landfill. The project team is also looking to provide multi-layer barrier packaging options with a minimum of 30% recycled material that will not incur the £200 per tonne plastic packaging tax introduced in the UK in April 2022.
The vast majority of existing multi-layer barrier plastic packaging cannot be recycled as it is classified according to ASTM D7611 RIC (resin identification code) as RIC “7” - indicating that the resin does not belong to the other types of resin defined from categories 1 to 6 (PET, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PP, PS). It therefore mostly ends up being incinerated or disposed of in landfills, creating a waste problem that is subject to increasing socioeconomic and legislative pressures.
While consumer demand for more sustainable product alternatives such as mono-layer plastic packaging is rising, mono-layer flexible packaging has for the most part not been able to deliver the same level of functionality, performance and product benefits provided by multi-layer barrier plastic packaging. The key aim of the Recycle Ready project is the development of fully scalable alternative LDPE multi-layer barrier films for the commercial production of food approved multi-layer flexible packaging that can be repeatedly recycled using existing pure plastic waste streams sorting and separation processing plants.
Additionally, the project team is looking to validate that Recycle Ready multi-barrier layer packaging can enhance product performance when reprocessed with either virgin or recycled materials to produce high value upcycled products. According to Interface Polymers, this is expected to be achievable based on test results from previous mixed plastic recycling R & D projects. In particular, a key recycling R & D project in 2019 that was also funded by an Innovate UK Innovation grant saw the development of a di-block additive that enables the high-value recycling of multi-layer mixed plastic flexible packaging. This additive was found to in change surface functionality such that the different polymer chains in recycled mixed plastic no longer repelled each other and created voids and inherent weakness, but bonded together and could be used in added value ‘upcycling’ applications.
As Dr Tim Clayfield, Application Development Leader for Interface Polymers explained: “A variant of our developed di-block additive technology, already proven to overcome non-compatibility between mixed polyolefins when melted and reprocessed, will be used in the Recycle Ready project. We are confident that together with Flexipol’s packaging expertise and processing capabilities, the project team can develop a range of RIC “4” labeled, fully recyclable food approved multi-layer barrier flexible plastic packaging products with no anisotropy issues, which can be reprocessed multiple times into high value recycled product applications.”
The Recycle Ready project is initially targeting multi-layer polyethylene and polyamide food packaging vacuum bags and thermoplastic films, a submarket sector worth £95M per annum, with the overall UK multi-layer barrier plastic packaging market annually estimated to be in excess of £750M.
The food packaging sector was selected for the project for three reasons according to Flexipol Innovation Manager, Tom Mason. “Firstly, producers and retailers know the performance benefits of multi-barrier layer plastic film packaging, such as keeping foods fresher and providing a longer shelf life, that mono-film packaging simply cannot provide to the same extent. Secondly, the sector is well served by the existing recycling infrastructure currently operating across the UK. Thirdly, Flexipol has well established supply chain links with both recycling and packaging companies.”
In addition to the film qualification and production scale-up of the new range of Ready Recycle multi-layer packaging products, Flexipol will be working with established bulk food processors. This ensures that the entire value chain is included in the project, from packaging production, food product packaging and packaged food processing, to post-use waste packaging collection and washing for recycling. The longer term objective is to leverage solutions coming out of this project into other multi-layer barrier film packaging sectors using alternative polymers, including PE, PET, EVOH and PA.