Closed-Loop Recycling Recaptures High-Value Food Packaging

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Polypropylene (PP) is without a doubt one of the most popular and versatile polymers created. Its high rigidity-to-weight ratio, strength, transparency, and toughness enables it to be used across multiple industries from packaging to textiles and cars. Even the surgical masks the world is now wearing are made from PP.

Ironically, the polymer’s extreme versatility results in its absence from recycling streams. The fact that PP is used in so many applications such as pots, tubs, and trays and not predominantly in bottles like PET and HDPE is the reason it is barely recycled, even in developed countries. 

To make matters worse, to date there is no food-grade recycled PP available for reuse into new packaging. Yet in the UK alone about 300,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) or 330,693 US tons yearly of PP is used in packaging, of which about 70% (210,000tpa/231,485 tons/year) is food-grade packaging.

But things are about to change. Currently PP comprises 20% of global plastics production, and this figure is growing at 6%. In 2018, 56 million metric tons were produced valued at $97 billion. It has been estimated that by 2025 we will be producing 83 million metric tons worth $147 billion.

Finally, PP has reached a critical percentage of the packaging stream, which means it can be readily recycled once it is collected.

Demand and vision.

As a specialist in plastics recycling, one of the most pressing enquiries I receive regularly from retailers and brand owners alike relates to unlocking the value in PP and turning it into high quality food-grade rPP. This has been the key driver behind the multi-client NEXTLOOPP project.

While the UK Plastics Tax on packaging with less than 30% recycled content has been a major incentive, I also see companies meeting the plastics waste issue head-on and finding real, sustainable, long-term solutions to address this crisis.

A check of global brand’s pledges confirms that the commercial world is finally taking plastic waste seriously. From the likes of Unilever, McDonalds, and Coca Cola that are pledging to make all their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable, most are targeting 25% recycled content by 2025. Most organizations have concluded that we simply can’t afford to ignore the imperatives of tackling waste.

The fundamental question is, why continue inundating our environment with more plastic when we have the core technologies to finally close the loop on PP?

PP is a fantastic polymer resource that is currently either going to landfill or being reused where other lesser polymers would suffice. It is a waste of precious energy to produce virgin PP when we have the capability to efficiently identify, sort, decontaminate, and recycle the current pots, trays, and tubs that are being produced.

NextLooPP’s mission is to create circular food-grade PP from post-consumer packaging. The goal is to establish a supply-chain model for the collection, sorting and reprocessing of food-grade PP packaging. From there we aim to efficiently manufacture high-quality and food-grade PP.

Over the next 24 months we will shift from pilot to large-scale operations to eventually create rPP that can be used across a wide range of applications and products to meet recycled packaging targets.

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Dynamic innovative tech.

We already have the cutting-edge technologies required to decontaminate and sort. The sorting technology alone is poised to transform the way recycling is managed as it has the potential to identify and sort all waste rapidly and efficiently and at high purity. The PRISM marker-based sorting technology (see ‘Invisible barcode’ tech enables recycling of PP food packaging, published January 2020) has been proven to be effective at full speed even on highly soiled and damaged packaging. PRISM is plug-and-play ready and can be readily implemented in most recycling plants.

We also have developed powerful decontamination technologies that enables redefining what is possible through reuse and recycling of PP. As such, one of the first materials NextLooPP will manufacture will be inert grade PP.

Inert PP: An innovative polymer type.

We call it inert as it will have no odor and no migration challenges for many products. This breakthrough, high-quality polymer will satisfy many demanding applications ranging from packaging to cosmetics. 

While our mission is to get more food-grade material back into food-contact applications, the cutting-edge technology boosts the economics for recyclers through the creation of high-value, recycled PP for many nonfood contact applications including cosmetics.

Mechanical versus chemical recycling.

Mechanical recycling makes perfect sense to transform the existing recycling and decontamination processes to boost economic efficiency and reduce cost.

There have been a few raised eyebrows when it comes to this standard method rather than chemical recycling however. The reasoning is that chemical recycling has a greater carbon footprint than mechanical recycling and requires more intensive capital-per-plant investment, thus large-scale chemical recycling plants remain years away.

Mechanical recycling is the perfect low-cost, highly efficient solution particularly when we are using high quality feedstock.

The next steps forward.

The next key steps towards producing food-grade rPP for reuse in consumer products are the establishment of EFSA and US FDA certification for the manufacturing processes. To address that, NextLooPP aims to develop new guideline for food-grade recycling for brand owners, retailers and converters. There will be no middle measures, thus ensuring that the loop for PP will only improve over time.

First creating and then closing the loop on food-grade PP has taken eight years of intense research and commercial trials — and we are now poised to finally close the loop in the circularity of PP as we very much look forward to this next exciting stage.

About NextLooPP – https://www.nextloopp.com

To register an expression of interest – https://www.nextloopp.com/expression-of-interest/

To view the NextLooPP webinar:

 

 

 



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