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    Topic review

    Multilayer Flexible Food Packaging

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    Multilayer flexible food packaging is under pressure to redesign for recyclability. Most multilayer films are not sorted and recycled with the currently available infrastructure, which is based on mechanical recycling in most countries. Up to now, multilayer flexible food packaging was highly customizable.

    1. Introduction

    Packaging is essential for maintaining the quality, safety, and security of many food products [1][2]. Robertson [1][3] described its basic functions as protection, containment, convenience, and communication. In addition to these functions, packaging should be recyclable but often faces end-of-life challenges. Recycling rates, particularly for plastic packaging, are low (42% on average throughout the European Union in 2018) [4]. Politics at the European level demand a stepwise increase in recycling rates for packaging [5]. This induces pressure on certain packaging solutions. Trend analysis shows that non-recyclable plastic packaging will no longer be tolerated by brand owners and retail chains [6]. Until 2030, all plastic packaging must be reusable or recyclable [5]. To reach this goal in the EU, most countries need investments to upgrade the collection, sorting, and recycling infrastructure, and principles of design for recycling must be comprehensively applied [7][8][9]. Guidelines from industry and academia support this transformation. They give guidance on material choice and design for packaging, packaging aid, and decoration, mostly in relation to established collection, sorting, and recycling infrastructure of specific regions or countries [10][11][12].

    A challenge is posed by the fact that enhancing the recyclability of multilayer films often goes hand in hand with a reduction of packaging efficiency. Current solutions on the market have been optimized over the last decades for resource efficiency and product protection. Reducing the complexity of these films would likely lead to thicker films and therefore heavier packaging solutions would be required [13][14]. This goes against the goals of a circular economy to reduce resource consumption and environmental impacts [7].

    A brief overview of the characteristics of multilayer flexibles, their contribution to sustainability, and their incompatibility in widely applied recycling technology make it possible to discuss the future design of this type of packaging. Research is necessary to bring recyclability and overall sustainability together in barrier packaging. Material combinations and recycling options with a clear benefit for the environment have to be developed.

    The main objective of this entry is to gather information on the benefits of multilayer flexible food packaging and show the negative recyclability trade-offs, especially for food technologists. The whole food-producing industry is under pressure to apply recyclable, at best circular packaging solutions throughout. To get there, it raises consciousness about what is considered as recyclable, and which negative effects might come along with redesign if we strive for circularity to enhance the packaging sustainability of specific products. This work mainly focuses on literature back to 2009, as the very first collection of hurdles ( Figure 1 ) started in 2019, collecting evidence on a topic that gained momentum in the last decade.

    Figure 1. Hurdles to circularity of packaging focused on, but not limited to multilayer flexible packaging [7][8][9][15][16][17][18][19][13][20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29][30][31][32][33][34][35][36][37][38][39][40][41][42][43][44][45][46][47][48][49][50][51][52][53][54][55][56][57][58][59][60][61][62].

    2. Multilayer Flexible Food Packaging

    Multilayer food packaging is a tailored packaging application. Beneficial properties of diverse materials are combined into one packaging solution. Flexible packaging like pouches, bags, lidding as well as rigid packaging like trays, cups, and bottles consist of variable material, sometimes combined in layers. Through the approach to combine materials, these products offer technical and systemic strengths but also weaknesses along the life cycle stages, from production to use phase and end-of-life scenarios [15][17][20][63].

    Figure 1 shows a collection of hurdles in relation to circular packaging, with a focus on multilayer flexible packaging, but not solely limited to it, encompassing literature research via Science Direct, Google Scholar, and Scopus, following the keywords “circular multilayer packaging”, “recycling flexible packaging”, “circular economy multilayer”, “multilayer recycling”, “polymer film food”, as well as secondary sources therein. Most mentioned hurdles, for example, the coordination along the supply chain, costs, and profitability, or the separation of materials, were collected and assigned to life cycle stages.

    Hurdles to circularity of packaging focused on, but not limited to multilayer flexible packaging [7][8][9][15][16][17][18][19][13][20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29][30][31][32][33][34][35][36][37][38][39][40][41][42][43][44][45][46][47][48][49][50][51][52][53][54][55][56][57][58][59][60][61][62].

    However, the weak spot of multilayer packaging is, that it is difficult to recycle, and its recycling rate is very low [15][64][17]. Ellen MacArthur [18] estimated in 2017 that 26 weight percent of flexible packaging is multi-material, representing 10% of global plastic packaging. Worst case, these 10% are lost for the aspired circular economy, as with the current infrastructure, the properties of the materials cannot reach the ones of virgin material again.

    3. Discussion

    Thus, a strong research need is present to develop recyclable barriers substituting EVOH and other barrier polymers such as PA and PVDC. A clear tendency is visible that the percentage of allowed EVOH in recyclable packaging solutions is one focus of discussion, as could be seen in the case of rigid PP packaging in 2020 and 2021 [65][66]. The range of currently available barrier options is small with SiOx and AlOx, and most SiOx- and AlOx coatings are currently neither generally suitable for sterilizable packaging nor deep drawing applications, which is of importance in the sector of, for example, convenience foods [67].

    The focus on mostly mono-polyolefins with certain tolerated barrier layers for enhanced recyclability of multilayer flexibles should not lead to higher resource consumption, as this would increase the environmental burden. This is particularly important in the specific case of flexible packaging where in recent decades, lightweight solutions have been developed and optimized [13][14].

    Multilayer flexibles are considered as a sustainable packaging solution due to low resource consumption and low carbon footprint but are being difficult to recycle with the collection and recycling infrastructure currently in place. Thus, there is this clear and urgent need for a redesign that balances recyclability and sustainability [68][69][18][70]. The switch from non-recyclable multilayer flexible to easily recyclable, predominantly mono-material packaging solutions, within the intention to increase recycling rates, however, leaves questions for discussion: If all rigid packaging (excluding beverage packaging) was 100% recyclable but substituted by non-recyclable flexible packaging, the global warming potential would decrease [69]. Questions arise referring to the intended goals of packaging redesign, underlying the increase of recycling rates.

    Still, in the current infrastructure, this above all is one knock-out criterion inhibiting the attempts to achieve truly circular flexibles for food packaging at present.

    4. Conclusions

    Multilayer flexible packaging is efficient. It combines the properties of polymers and non-polymeric materials to thin, lightweight packaging solutions for foods with and without barrier needs. The main problem is that it is rarely recycled in the existing waste management infrastructure. This is caused by multiple circumstances. The variability of used materials, the collection infrastructure, the complex sorting, and high levels of food residues outline the situation. Furthermore, the focus on mechanical recycling through combined processing complicates the situation. New solutions in recycling technology exist but are not yet available on a larger scale. This leads to a concentration on mono-material solutions to fit into the existing recycling infrastructure and diminishes the material choice to overcome thermal incompatibilities. The maximum tolerated levels of barrier materials are widely discussed and are in the process of being reduced. The substitution of a specific material is challenging, as only a limited number of barriers are available. In relation to the main purpose of packaging, the products’ protection, this could result in negative side effects. A reduction of food shelf-life, higher packaging weights, and derived increased environmental burden are imaginable consequences that need to be considered when taking steps towards the goal of packaging redesign for holistic sustainability.

    This entry is adapted from 10.3390/foods10112702


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