Flexible packaging and recycling

Products such as coffee, soup, crisps and sweets are often packed in flexible multilayer packaging, also known as laminates. Laminates consist of thin layers of different materials, generally a combination of plastic and aluminium, and are used to protect products against moisture, oxygen, and light, among other things. Because they require only a minimal amount of material, laminates are an efficient way to extend a product’s shelf life. These advantageous properties make them a very sustainable option if you use a life-cycle analysis to calculate the overall environmental impact of a certain piece of packaging. However, laminates are currently not optimally suitable for circular use because they are difficult to recycle.


  • In order to make laminated packaging materials circular, new ways to replace them with recyclable mono-materials must be explored. Flexible packaging made of PP, PET, PA, EPP, PS, and PLA are currently sub-optimally recyclable and end up in the so-called mixed stream after being sorted, at which stage they can no longer be used to create new flexible packaging. At the moment, only pure PE film can be recycled and reused to make new packaging film. Recycled PE cannot be used for food packaging.
  • When used, laminates should be minimally disruptive to existing recycling processes. In some cases, materials used in laminates are barred from recycling, because they may negatively affect packaging processes and the ultimate quality of the recycled materials. This applies to laminates with evaporated aluminium, for example, which are often still collected with residual waste and incinerated.
  • With a view to the future, researchers will have to investigate whether it could be possible to use novel technologies, such as chemical recycling techniques to recycle certain laminates as well.


Trends and developments

  • A lot of work is yet to be done to find a circular alternative to flexible laminated packaging in the Netherlands and Europe. KIDV has a simple, unambiguous definition of recyclability, based on the vision of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation below, which KIDV has translated into a definition of easily recyclable packaging. 

    Packaging must fulfil four conditions in order to be properly recyclable:

    1. The packaging has been put together in such a way that it is collected or collected by recognised waste collectors.
    2. The packaging must be sorted and/or bundled into pre-defined streams for recycling processes.
    3. The material is processed in a recycling process on an industrial scale and recovered as a raw material.
    4. The recovered raw material has a unified composition and can be used in the production of new packaging or products. Producers of innovative materials must demonstrate that they can be collected and sorted in sufficient quantities, are compatible with existing industrial recycling processes or are available in sufficient quantities to carry out new industrial recycling processes.

    Based on: Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2015, Plastic Recyclers Europe 2018, European Directive 94/EC/62

 A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.” 
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015


  • As part of the CRISP partnership, a study into laminates was carried out by Wageningen Food & Biobased Research in 2019 and 2020. The goal of this study on laminates was to answer questions about the application of laminates in packaging, and new and/or better approaches to create more sustainable packaging.

    Center for Research in Sustainable Packaging (CRISP) is a partnership of the KIDV with Twente University, Utrecht University and Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. The cooperation is aimed at helping companies gain more knowledge about sustainable packaging, with a focus on the circular design of packaging.

  • In 2019, KIDV carried out a study to investigate new opportunities and alternatives for ten typical, widely used types of plastic laminate packaging that are currently difficult to recycle. This study resulted in the following findings and recommendations, inter alia.
  • In 2019, KIDV launched a so-called Community of Practice for Laminates. On the road to circular flexible packaging, companies face both technical constraints and institutional challenges. By working together, we want to take on these challenges and eventually overcome them. 
  • In cooperation with the members of this Community of Practice for Laminates, KIDV has drawn up a Roadmap on ‘Multilayer flexible packaging in a circular economy’. This Roadmap outlines the various technical dilemmas and identifies eight general solutions for making laminate packaging more circular, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. This roadmap is used to open up a dialogue with chain parties and should, in the next three to five years, lead to broad-based solutions for this complex challenge.

Findings and recommendations


  • The majority of flexible plastics on the market today are mono-material plastics and/or consist of more than 90% polyolefins. Although they are generally highly recyclable and reusable, collection and sorting processes must be improved. Laminates make up 20% of the total amount of flexible packaging used, which means that one-to-one replacement will usually be difficult or impossible in practice. In many cases, the original materials were specifically designed and optimised for a particular purpose, making them particularly hard to replace without making any real changes. The extent to which any such change would have critical consequences for the functioning of a piece of packaging will have to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
  • By and large, alternative materials for multilayer packaging are not much more expensive than the original materials, although there are cases in which the alternative materials are more difficult to process with current equipment and processes. This may reduce the overall line speed and may even increase production downtime, which can have a significant impact on the total costs of producing the product-packaging combination.
  • In order to improve the recycling of laminated packaging in the future, it is important that greater clarity is created as to what constitutes easily recyclable flexible packaging, e.g. by means of CEFLEX design guidelines. The plastics processing industry could also continue to develop alternatives to laminates and strive to create improved mono-materials with PE and PP to replace flexible, multi-layer materials. 
    CEFLEX is a European consortium of more than 180 companies and organisations representing the entire flexible packaging chain. KIDV is involved in drawing up the draft guidelines, which focus on the collection, sorting and recycling of laminated packaging, new end-of-life technologies and processes and on new applications of recyclate, both within and outside the packaging market.
  • As a tool for companies to determine whether packaging is recyclable in the current collection and sorting system, KIDV has developed the Recycle check Flexible plastic packaging. The Recycle Check consists of a decision tree with questions and background information.

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