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 the 24-month collaborative project titled – ‘Recycle Ready’ multi-layer barrier plastic packaging films – to provide fully recyclable LDPE (low-density polyethylene) multi-layer packaging, suitable for upcycling into high-value applications. 

This highly innovative and challenging development project brings together Interface Polymers’ internationally patented and proven 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 centers 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 being introduced in the UK from April 2022.

Addressing Industry Pressures 

The socioeconomic and legislative pressures being applied to the packaging industry in the UK and globally to find more sustainable solutions is due to the fact that the vast majority of existing multi-layer barrier plastic packaging cannot be recycled, being classified according to ASTM D7611 RIC (plastic resin identification code) as RIC “7” materials, so mostly ends up being incinerated or disposed of in landfills. Globally it is estimated to be a 20 million tonnes unrecyclable plastics waste problem, hence the urgent need for game-changing recycling solutions. 

In addition to legislative pressure, the project is looking to address a major packaging industry dilemma due to growing socioeconomic pressure for more sustainable product alternatives, such as mono-layer plastic packaging; while recyclable (ASTM D7611 RIC “4” & “5” classified), mono-layer flexible packaging cannot deliver the same level of functionality performance and product benefits provided by multi-layer barrier plastic packaging. The new Recycle Ready range will enable packaging manufacturers to offer retailers and consumers technically superior multi-layer barrier packaging products that will meet RIC “4” and “5” classifications, so will be 100% recyclable. 

Key Project Aims 

The project’s key aim is to offer the packaging industry 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 which proved that their Polarfin di-block additive acts like a toughening agent, providing as good, if not better, mechanical properties than the original 100% virgin polymer resin formulation, even if the same materials is repeatedly recycled.

New Di-block Additive Variant 

Since the start of Interface Polymers back in 2016, several R & D projects have been commercialized and Polarfin additives are now providing compatibility and enhanced surface functionality for both virgin and recycled mixed plastic thermoplastic packaging (primarily polyolefin/ polyamide/ polystyrene/ EVOH). A key recycling R & D project in 2019 was also Innovate UK funded by an Innovation grant. From the R & D work successfully completed by Interface Polymers on this previous recycling project, a di-block additive that enables high value recycling of multi-layer mixed plastic flexible packaging was developed which succeeded in changing 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.  

This latest UKRI grant funded project will use key additive parameters from the successful 2019 mixed plastic recycling project, taking things to the next logical stage; this time the collaboration project team is looking to include Polarfin di-block additive technology in the formulation of originally manufactured packaging. 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.”  

Food Packaging Focus 

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 explains 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 a 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, such as polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) and polyamide (PA).

Polarfin® is an internationally patented technology and registered trademark of Interface Polymers Ltd.]