'Virtuous Circle' project partners announce research on recycling for multi-layer packaging

Multi-layer packaging, while highly effective, has been criticized for being challenging to recycle due to the challenges of separating the different layers and sorting them by type.

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Partners of the innovative “Virtuous Circle” project today announced the results of research into new recycling options for multilayer food packaging at leading global trade fair Interpack. The findings shed new light on the potential of this type of packaging to be “upcycled” for use in products of value in a circular economy.

Multimaterial multilayer films are an innovative type of packaging used to preserve food and to protect it from contamination or from oxygen that would lead to faster degradation of food. Multi-layer packaging, while highly effective, has been criticized for being challenging to recycle due to the challenges of separating the different layers and sorting them by type. In addition, the general preconception is that even if these materials can be technically recycled, the resulting raw material is of such poor quality that it effectively amounts to “downcycling.”

One of the core aims of the “Virtuous Circle” project, launched in South Africa in October 2016, has been to challenge these assumptions. Project partners DuPont and Rural Waste Poverty Alleviation Solutions (RWPA) have worked together on testing innovative methods of creating new products of genuine value from multilayer film packaging after it has served its original purpose.

The main focus of the Virtuous Circle project is the distribution of nutritious FUTURELIFE® Smart food™ in Amcor manufactured multilayer film pouches to school children in South Africa, and the subsequent recycling of these pouches into school desks. Each Wildlands Green Desk not only ensures that 40kgs of waste is diverted from landfill, but also contribute to address a current shortage of an estimated 3 million schools desks in South Africa[1].

The desks have been made possible thanks to a process developed by project partners Wildlands and RWPA Solutions which results in desks that are stiffer and stronger using recyclate multilayer waste compared with virgin low-density polyethylene (LDPE) resin. A unique characteristic of RWPA’s methodology is that no water is required to clean the multilayer film before it is recycled.

The desks containing recycled waste from the multilayer pouches are now being delivered to schools involved in the project.  The school children, who have already enjoyed the nutritious food kept fresh by the pouches, are getting to see first-hand the benefits of a circular economy approach.

Research undertaken in parallel as part of the project has also demonstrated that there are other potential uses for higher volumes of multilayer comingled film waste – ones that can add value in larger market segments in an economically efficient way.

Until now, it has been necessary to add recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE) to recycled multilayer waste to achieve stiffness and strength in end-products. Thanks to the research carried out by DuPont and RWPA Solutions, a new way to recycle multilayers and contribute to high quality products without the use of HDPE has been successfully tested.

By mixing compatibilizers and coupling agents with the raw material converted from the comingled multilayer film waste, and combining it with sawdust (itself a recycled material) it is now possible to manufacture building planks for the construction of low cost housing that comfortably conform to strength standards under South African building codes (see infographic).

The research findings will be presented at Interpack on May 8, during a roundtable discussion with Virtuous Circle Partners taking on the Innovationparc stage at the Save Food Pavilion.

[1] http://www.expandafrica.com/index.php/what-we-do

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