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Towards circular economy in the plastic packaging value chain

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Closing the loop protects the environment and enhances sustainability

A linear plastics life cycle from virgin natural resources to product incineration or landfill puts pressure on the environment. Novel biomaterials and recycling-and-recovery processes and tools will preserve resources, reduce emissions and minimise plastics pollution on land and in the sea.

Climate Change and Environment
Industrial Technologies

Global plastics production has increased tremendously over the last 50 years. By 2050, it could account for 20 % of global oil consumption. Increasing production and use, particularly of single-use plastics, has led to increasing plastic waste generation, the majority of which is still incinerated or discarded. In Europe, packaging applications represented 39.9 % of the total plastics demand and the largest application field for the plastics industry in 2018. The EU-funded CIRC-PACK project will help us make ends meet, literally, with numerous innovations to support a circular cradle-to-cradle economy within the plastic packaging value chain. Success was guaranteed with a consortium of partners from every stage of the value chain.

From nature to nature

Rigid plastics like those used in plastic bottles generally consist of a single material. This facilitates recycling tremendously. Multilayer plastic films, a non-recyclable combination of plastic materials or multi-material products such as plastic-coated cardboard are a different story. These are usually incinerated or landfilled, a roadblock to achieving a circular plastics economy. Thanks to CIRC-PACK, this is all changing for the better. CIRC-PACK project coordinator and Technology Project Manager Aitana Sáez de Guinoa Vilaplana of CIRCE explains: “We developed breakthrough biodegradable plastics using alternative bio-based raw materials and eco-friendly packaging designs adapted to these plastics to improve collection and recycling. The materials and designs were supported by our new technologies and methods to increase recyclability and enable a robust after-use plastic economy.”

Circling the wagons, protecting our environment

CIRC-PACK’s biodegradable and compostable biomaterials were demonstrated in plastic bags, flexible packaging for hygiene products, coffee capsules, shampoo bottles, and food trays and films. A life-cycle assessment demonstrated that the new biopolymers reduced the fossil resource scarcity indicator by about 20 %, water consumption 6-40 % and global warming potential 14-50 % when used in the targeted applications. Applying ecodesign principles to multilayer films for sealing food trays spurred design of a bio-based and compostable mono-material plastic layer as an attractive alternative to current non-recyclable multilayer films. A multi-material box for powdered detergent replaces conventional polyester film lamination with a biopolymer dispersion coating that keeps the cardboard recycling process flowing without hindrance. The innovative materials and packaging were complemented with new methods and technologies to increase recyclability and enable a robust after-use plastic economy. Sáez de Guinoa expands: “In the automotive sector, closed-loop recycling and reuse of scrap to produce new car components reduced the use of virgin polypropylene by about 20 %.” Diaper recycling yielded plastic for tertiary packaging and cellulose for the biopolymer sector. Real-time monitoring during extrusion of the recycled materials enabled adaptation of operating parameters to optimise final properties, overcoming many challenges related to the heterogeneity of post-consumer plastic waste. A ‘circular packaging ecodesign tool’ has been launched to help packaging manufacturers and designers improve the circularity and recyclability of packaging. Sáez de Guinoa summarises: “The brand owners can use the innovations to provide more sustainable products to their consumers. The recycling systems benefit from the elimination of ‘problematic’ formats like multilayers and multi-materials. Finally, the environment benefits from the lower impact of all solutions developed in CIRC-PACK.” A circle is indeed a simple and beautiful thing.

Keywords

CIRC-PACK, plastics, packaging, recycling, biopolymer, biodegradable, compostable, ecodesign, circular plastics economy, polypropylene

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