Could a ‘100% recyclable’ polymer drive the new plastics economy?

The developers of a packaging polymer that is both 100% recyclable and 100% biodegradable in standard waste management facilities claim the new material could help to create a much-needed circular economy for plastic packaging.

The polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH) polymer, developed by Aquapak Polymers, effectively bypasses the difficulties of separating film from rigid plastic, and could replace multilayer packaging on a wide range of consumer products.

It can be used to replace pouches and films for the likes of crisp packets, biscuit wrappers and meat packaging, and also to replace the plastic window in paper envelopes and bread bags. The material is an oil, solvent and air barrier – keeping products fresher for longer.

‘Great deal of interest’

Aquapak Polymers is currently in the demonstration phase for the solution, with plans to build a full-scale production facility in Birmingham next year. The firm is now talking to various retailers, waste sector experts and local authorities about using the polymer as an alternative to less-biodegradable plastic film solutions.

Managing director of Aquapak Polymers Mike Everard said: “The polymer process developed by Aquapak is attracting a great deal of interest from the packaging, retail and waste sectors. As a packaging material it outperforms both cornstarch and many conventional plastics, while also overcoming the usual barriers to recovery and recycling.

“We are currently in talks with a number of key market sectors. It’s an exciting time for Aquapak as we demonstrate to manufacturers and brand owners that they can now have a strong monolayer plastic that performs well, looks great, and is environmentally sustainable.”

Crucially, the FDA-approved polymer is benign in the environment and non-toxic to marine life, and if recovery for recycling is not required, the material is fully dissolvable in water treatment processes and can be washed away safely with wastewater. If it was attached to a rigid plastic tray, for example, it would be easily separable in a materials sorting facility.

The polymer also degrades quickly in anaerobic digestion (AD) processes following an assessment by key waste management operators – meaning a de-packaging process is not necessarily required before AD. A spokesperson for Aquapak told edie that the firm has completed “very successful trials” with a leading UK AD operator – “they have been very impressed and are excited about the potential for both food packaging and food waste bags,” the spokesperson said.

New plastics economy

This is the latest in a line of innovations that aim to tackle the ever-increasing problem of plastic waste and the resulting marine and environmental contamination.

The recent ‘new plastics economy’ report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation revealed the alarming statistic  that, by 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in the world’s oceans by weight. That report called for “moon shot” innovations to make plastic packaging more closed-loop compatible.

Earlier this year, the UK Government relaxed statutory plastic packaging recycling targets in an apparent attempt to ‘reduce the burden’ on business, with research showing that, despite ‘significant increases’ in recycling, the industry could struggle to hit 2020 targets. Deep within the raft of policy changes detailed in the 2016 Budget, the Government noted that plastic packaging recycling targets would fall from 52% to 49% for 2016, before receiving an incremental 2% increase each year until a 57% target is set in 2020.

That announcement followed research from WRAP which suggested that, despite ‘significant increases’ in recycling, the industry could struggle to hit 2020 targets.

Another recently developed plastic recycling solution is ‘invisible barcodes’ for plastics that could help streamline the sorting and recycling of food-based polymers. With different-coloured plastics generally not being recyclable together, PRISM’s barcoding solution allows these different colours to be scanned for individual sorting and recycling, rendering many hard-to-recycle plastic mixes much easier to sort.

edie recently profiled seven sustainability solutions that could all serve a purpose in ending the war on packaging waste – some addressing the issue of recyclability, others replace raw materials together. Read the full list here.

Luke Nicholls & Alex Baldwin 

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