Teaming up to tackle flexible plastic packaging

From your chocolate bar wrapper to the packaging that protects your latest online purchase, flexible plastic is everywhere. But in Canada, only three to four per cent of it gets recycled.

“In many cases it is the ideal package for many different types of products, but we haven’t done a good job of designing it for recyclability or effectively collecting and recycling it,” says Paul Shorthouse, Senior Director with the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP).

He points to how flexible plastic packaging and films often get caught on equipment, float around in the sorting plant, and contaminate other recycling streams. Even when they’re properly sorted, preparing them for recyclers and reclaimers is no small task, with a 750-kilogram bale containing anywhere between 75,000 and 225,000 items.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that flexible packaging often contains multiple layers of different types of plastics and other materials that many recycling facilities can’t easily separate or process.

“We talk about flexibles like it’s one thing, but it’s actually many different things with hundreds of different structures and different resins,” explains Charles David Mathieu-Poulin, Strategic Advisor at the Circular Plastics Taskforce (CPT), a CPP Partner.

That makes it difficult to offer reclaimers a pure, high-quality product, in a market where demand — and prices — are already low.

“It’s a systems problem,” says Shorthouse. “So we needed to bring the whole system of players together to address it.”

Creating a blueprint for the perfect recycling system

In 2023, CPP and the Circular Plastics Taskforce joined forces with key upstream and downstream players to launch PRFLEX (Perfecting the Recycling System for Flexible Plastic Packaging).

The initiative brings together key recycling organizations and packaging industry experts who understand the science of turning recycled resins into new products: CPP, the Circular Plastics Taskforce, the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, Circular Materials, Éco Entreprises Québec and Recycle BC. It also attracted The Film and Flexibles Recycling Coalition of The Recycling Partnership — a U.S.-based NGO keen to learn from what is happening in Canada.

By working collaboratively, the coalition aims to improve recovery and recycling rates for flexible plastic packaging and films collected from Canadian households. “We realized that working together created a better result than just working independently,” says Shorthouse. “It’s about breaking down some of the silos.”

Over a six-month period in 2023, a research team gathered data to better understand the materials placed on the market, as well as collection and recycling rates across the country. They identified infrastructure gaps in material recovery facilities and recycling facilities, and they assessed European models to learn from global best practices.

Catalyzing system-wide change

In December 2023, the PRFLEX study findings were published, along with nine recommendations on how to improve curbside collection, enhance sorting capabilities, promote easy-to-process packaging and address other systemic issues. PRFLEX also hosted a webinar to discuss the study’s findings, attracting some of the world’s biggest brands and recycling companies.

Now, the group is working with stakeholders to implement their recommendations. Those efforts include running technical workshops to help producers and brand owners redesign for recyclability, piloting improved collection processes, and equipping material recovery facilities and recycling facilities with the latest technologies such as enhanced sensors, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

In the process, they’re creating real solutions to a complex problem. “We want to be a catalyst for change,” says Mathieu-Poulin.

What’s the future of plastic packaging?

There are plenty of reasons why we use plastic packaging on a daily basis. It’s affordable. It’s versatile. It can seal out water, moisture and light, protecting the product underneath. And because it’s lightweight, it cuts down on transportation, saving money and greenhouse gas emissions.

But far too much of it ends up in landfills or as litter on land and in our oceans. Meanwhile, microplastics are found everywhere from remote Arctic ecosystems to our own bloodstreams.

Alternative packaging solutions can bring their own disadvantages. They may require more energy to produce. They may be heavier, increasing CO2 emissions during transport. And when it comes to food packaging, non-plastic alternatives may allow the product to spoil quicker, wasting all the resources that went into its production.

So how do we reduce both the volume and the impact of plastic waste? It’s complicated but it’s possible. And that’s why the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP) exists.

Driving practical solutions

Today, the CPP is finding workable ways to reimagine the system, including particularly thorny issues like flexible plastics. “We want to keep plastic in the economy. We don’t want to see it in the natural environment,” says Cher Mereweather, the organization’s managing director. “We appreciate that it’s complex, but we are committed to working together, because wicked problems cannot be solved in isolation.”

The Pact brings together nearly 100 key stakeholders across the entire plastics value chain. They include major retailers like Loblaw Companies Limited, Canadian Tire and Walmart Canada; consumer goods companies like Nestle, General Mills and Coca-Cola Canada. There are companies involved in raw material production, manufacturing and waste management. And there are trade associations, environmental organizations, government bodies and academic institutions.

Together, they’ve developed a roadmap for creating a circular economy for plastic packaging in Canada, grounded in the latest data and informed by industry experts.

The latest version — set to be released in spring 2024 — lays out four key priorities. One is preventing waste in the first place by reducing, reusing and redesigning consumer goods. The second is optimizing the infrastructure required for reuse, refill and recycling systems through measures like standardizing packaging designs and investing in new technologies.

Another priority is making sure the right data is available to enable systemic change. This includes helping retailers better track the amount and kind of plastics going out their door, for example, and how much of it ends up as waste. Or it could mean understanding the life cycle of materials to ensure that potential solutions are actually effective. The final priority is sharing the knowledge and lessons learned along the way.

At the same time, the Pact is establishing “accelerator pods” that bring together key players and leverage strategic investments to develop and scale solutions, such as reusable and refillable alternatives to conventional packaging. “Because if you say no to something, we need other things to say yes to,” explains The Natural Step’s Sarah Brooks, who serves as an advisor to the Canada Plastics Pact.

Reimagining the entire plastics value chain for such a ubiquitous material is a huge undertaking. But for the CPP, the key is having committed partners at the table who understand what’s at stake and are willing to do the hard work. “That’s the power of the community,” Mereweather says.