Flexible packaging is defined as packaging that flexes easily and can be made of both single and multiple layers of materials, such as plastic film and aluminium foil


When flexible packaging becomes waste, the packs are placed into bins either at home, at work or on the go (Credit: Shutterstock/Nitiphonphat)

In February 2021, waste management company Suez published a report that outlines how flexible packaging is managed after it’s used by the consumer in the UK.

Major consumer brands such as Nestle, Mars and Ella’s Kitchen commissioned Suez to undertake work as to how the current waste management system for this material in the UK functions.

Additionally, the report defines the range and scope of materials placed on the market using publicly available data, determines how flexible plastic packaging is currently collected in the UK and how it might be collected in the future.

Stuart Hayward-Higham, technical development director for Suez and author of the report, said: “This report summarises many months of research and collaboration across the value chain to understand issues and demonstrates a real potential to move more plastic packaging into the recycling bin.

“Collecting flexible plastic packaging and films from homes and businesses would help improve recycling rates and create a more circular system for flexible plastic packaging, so we are encouraged both by the findings and by the effective partnership working that made it possible to complete the research.”

Based on the findings of this report, NS Packaging looks at how flexible packaging waste is managed in the UK.


How much flexible packaging goes into the marketplace in the UK?

Flexible packaging is defined as packaging that flexes easily and can be made of both single and multiple layers of materials, such as plastic film and aluminium foil.

These materials are chosen for their properties that ensure that the contents of the packaging are fit for purpose when opened and utilised.

It’s often used to reduce the weight of the packaging itself and the energy used in its production – with it reducing the burdens of transporting the packaging in the supply chain and provides additional health and safety benefits.

The first area the Suez report addresses was looking at how much flexible packaging is placed on the market, in order to understand how much needs to be managed.

This work was undertaken in two ways – a top-down assessment based on publicly available data and a bottom-up approach using waste composition analysis to estimate the volume of materials placed on the market.

Based upon its bottom-up total, the report estimated that 895,000 tonnes of flexible plastic packaging are placed on the UK market per annum – which is equivalent to 215 billion packs.

Of this, 48% – or 430,000 tonnes – was made from PE mono, and 20% – or 180,000 tonnes – being PP mono.

Packaging made from aluminium layers with plastic makes up about 13% – or 120,000 tonnes – of the flexibles on the market, with most of the rest being made up of products made from metalised layers with plastic – 7% – and a PE/PP mix – 2%.


How flexible packaging waste is collected in the UK

When flexible packaging becomes waste, the packs are placed into bins either at home, at work or on the go.

When they’re consumed at home, the householder is constrained by whether they live in a local authority that collects flexible packaging for recycling.

If they live in an authority that collects it, then the consumers can place their materials in the designated container.

However, if they live in an area that does not collect flexibles then they either use one of the voluntary schemes available or place the materials in their residual bin.

Household collections are currently organised by local authorities and are either run directly by the authority themselves or through contracts with private companies.

According to Suez, at present there are more than 30 different collection systems in the UK – however, they can be distilled into three categories.

Firstly, there’s what the report describes as “source-separated collections” with the householder separating the target local authority streams before collection.

These in many instances go into single streams such as plastic or paper, but occasionally into combined streams like metals and glass.

The second is described as “multi-mingled stream collections”, which sees the householder separates the recycling into a number of combined streams – such as fibre-based products in one, glass in another and the remaining materials combined together.

The final system is “fully mingled collections”, where the household is required to place all the local authority recycling streams into one container for collection.

For employees and businesses, it’s not commonplace for flexible packaging to be collected alongside other packaging and recyclable materials.

Because of this, most flexible packaging used at work will be placed into the residual waste containers.

Some businesses do give employees access to voluntary collection schemes, but this is limited.

At present, the vast majority of business collections are fully mingled, however the report’s authors expect the base service will move towards a split body with fibre collected separately from other dry recycling materials in the future.


How flexible packaging is sorted once it’s collected

Once the packaging is collected, waste management operators begin sorting – which is a process where the collected materials are taken and separated into streams ready for recycling.

The costs incurred will vary depending on how the materials are collected.

For materials collected in a source-separated manner, the cost of sorting is low, but the costs of collection are higher.

On other hand, if it’s a mingled collection system, the cost of collection is low, but the sorting cost is higher.

Most sorting plants will use a mix of processes such as weight and weight to surface area, near-infrared and various magnetic properties – because of this, one difficulty is that paper and thin card may also present in a similar manner as plastic film and flexible packaging.

As such, it may be necessary to collect paper and card separately from film and flexibles so they can be effectively sorted.

Sorting costs can vary between the size of plants, with the cost being typically higher for smaller plants than larger plants – with this varying from between 14p and 45p per kilogramme depending on conditions.


How flexible packaging is treated

Once the flexible packaging waste goes through the sorting process, it ends up at a recycling centre – with there being two main types of treating this waste.

The first it could go through is a mechanical recycling process, where waste is turned into secondary raw material or products without changing the chemical or molecular structure of the materials.

The other type is a chemical recycling process, which refers to several different technologies that convert sorted plastic waste into its original or similar molecular building blocks using thermal or chemical processes.

According to the report, the current level of investment in this kind of processing reflects the feedstock currently available, and the status of extended producer responsibility and other policy measures that provide financial mechanisms for investment.

Should governments in the UK confirm that film and flexible plastic packaging would be collected at kerbside, and the extended producer responsibility will be amended as proposed, the investment would be expected to increase in the near future.