Impacting the Recyclability of Crisp-Packet Packaging

Posted by Performance Coatings Team on 06/05/2023

Worldwide, consumers love their crisps (a.k.a. potato chips), with sales totaling more than $32 billion in 20211. In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that 6 billion packets of crisps are consumed annually2. That’s a lot of single-use packaging for just crisps alone and doesn’t include other snack foods that rely on multi-layer packaging to deliver barrier properties, strength and storage stability.

The problem is that crisp packets are extremely difficult to recycle into a useful product because they are made from a fusion of very thin layers of plastic (PE, PP, PET), adhesives and ink, and the layers are very difficult to separate. Crisp packets can be downcycled with the layers turned into pellets that can be used in commodity products, but there is little value to this material so landfills are the most common final resting place of these packets.

What makes crisps packets so good for packaging – lightweight, lower volume, customizable barrier properties, using less energy to manufacture and transport – also makes them a particular challenge for the recycling industry because they are so tiny and lightweight.

In addition to consumer pressure for packaging to be more sustainable, the European Commission has set an EU-wide objective for all packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2030. For the industry, the rules create new business opportunities, decrease the need for virgin materials and boost Europe's recycling capacity. The goal is to make all packaging on the EU market recyclable in an economically viable way and provide value to the recyclers to facilitate buy-in from all parties involved: the brand owners, packaging companies, sorters and recyclers.

For consumers, the new rules will ensure reusable packaging options, eliminate unnecessary packaging, limit overpackaging, and provide labels to support correct recycling by showing what the packaging is made of and the correct waste stream to put it in.

Mechanical recycling has shown tremendous promise when it comes to meeting EU objectives for packaging. Mechanical recycling makes it easier to separate layers for more effective recycling when used with recycling-compatible inks, coatings and adhesives.

A Coating Solution

Lubrizol is enabling improved layer separation during recycling through coating technology that can be applied between layers to cleanly separate them and then recycling them as plastic film. With this coating solution, material layers can be captured more cleanly in the right places to avoid recycling contamination. They can then be classified as recyclable and valuable materials that can be recaptured and fed back into the system.

After extensive testing, this coating solution is close to being commercially launched in the EU once food contact clearance is given. Crisp packets using this coating solution are currently undergoing more testing with a recycler, who is using its standard recycling process with no modifications needed. Where more investment will be needed is in the sorting process. Sorting companies will have to be able to detect crisp packets that can be recycled, which will be done by adding a UV marking. Sorting companies will use UV-detection equipment to identify the UV-marked packaging.

This mechanical separation solution enables clean recycling of layers while retaining clarity and mechanical properties. That enables flexible packaging to become a more sustainable solution and get closer to meeting the EU 20230 targets.


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