Packaging material loses its original purpose the moment a product is consumed. Post-consumer packages can either be treated as waste or can be recycled, these are the so-called end-of-life options, which impact the sustainability of packaging. Moreover, governments set recycling targets for packaging materials. Wageningen Food & Biobased Research therefore includes waste processing options and reuse options in its research into and development of packaging materials.
In our facilities we study the technical possibilities of waste processing options, observe the ‘behaviour’ of materials in waste streams, and develop specific processing options to make waste a valuable raw material.
Research into recycling options
The end-of-life options of packaging materials vary per type of material and mainly depend on how easy it is to separate a material in the waste stage. Cardboard boxes, tin and glass are often already being recycled, for example, whereas post-consumer plastic packages and beverage cartons were until recently incinerated because recycling was considered too complex and costly. Nowadays there are separate collection and recycling options for plastic as well.
We research various reuse and waste processing options in order to provide companies with the best possible advice on sustainable packaging. We study whether the entire product, just the material or even the building blocks of the materials (monomers) on their own can be reused:
- Product recycling is interesting for products that can be reused as a whole, such as bottles and crates. This type of research focuses on the demands and requirements for collection systems, as the collection method is crucial for the reuse of the complete product.
- Material recycling is dependent on the composition of collected material streams. Our research here also focuses on the demands and requirements of the collection system and mechanical recycling technologies to realise new, recycled materials.
- Reusing the building blocks: sometimes it is not possible or desirable to reuse a product or material, for example because it has been ‘polluted’ by the packaged product in the user process or due to collection issues. We then research whether we can reduce waste streams to ‘building blocks’ (often monomers) which can be rebuilt towards sustainable raw materials for (packaging) material.
- Composting and fermentation is an interesting option when a material is ‘polluted’ by the packaged product in the user process or if there are issues with separating it from the product. A wide range of materials can be composted or fermented in industrial compost installations, and we can test these materials for specific properties. Clients are advised on the available materials and clear communication to consumers; an important aspect in this reuse option.
Packaging design can be aligned to specific reuse and waste processing options. It is important to know which variables are involved in separation and sorting processes, such as sieving, wind sifting and NIR sorting losses that strongly depend on the shape, size and weight of the packages. Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research facilities can simulate these separation and sorting processes. We also have a wide range of separation technologies that we can use to separate, isolate and process components from waste streams – such as fibres from cardboard containers – to develop new materials.
Research into consumer behaviour also has a separate, vital place in waste separation, which is why we take a critical look at how consumers handle packaging materials. For example, if the packaging is clearly recognisable as being ‘compostable’, the question of whether the consumers know how to throw away this type of packaging material will make or break this specific end-of-life option.