Breaking Down Barriers to Mono-material Packaging

New material advancements allow brands to replace non-recyclable packaging with recyclable single-material alternatives. Image courtesy of NOVA Chemicals.

Packaging Equipment Plays a Pivotal Role in Market Adoption

By Brant Wunderlich, Market Manager, Plastomers and Oriented Films at NOVA Chemicals

Recyclable flexible packaging is an important part of enabling a plastics circular economy. And in pursuit of this objective, one large opportunity is the estimated 23 billion lbs. of multi-material packaging film in use as of 2023, which cannot be practically delaminated and recycled at scale.

Mono-material packages — film structures comprised of one material type, that are easy to sort and process by recyclers —  are one solution that has the power to boost recycling rates and create higher quality recyclate, reducing waste and strengthening the post-consumer recycled (PCR) supply chain.

A Myriad of sustainable options

As sustainability gained traction in the packaging industry over the last several years, a myriad of alternatives emerged which brand owners have trialed and used to supply recyclable or compostable packaging solutions to market. But despite exciting announcements, circularity in flexible packaging hasn’t yet been achieved, why?

In packaging, while some approaches faced challenges with quality and performance, others demanded significant investment. Certainly, some solutions still show promise and remain to be proven.

Ultimately, the success of sustainable packaging solutions is limited by their ability to perform in existing products that fill store shelves today. On top of performance, when brands and consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies evaluate new packaging material, cost is a major concern. From the material itself to the processing equipment, making changes can be time intensive and expensive.

To mitigate these concerns, there is a critical need for solutions for all package types that can be used on existing equipment and implemented immediately at scale. This will ensure higher adoption rates and prove to be a more viable and economic option to bring sustainable packaging to market.

Tailored specifically for commercial BOPP tenter frame lines, NOVA’s BOPE-HD technology plays a pivotal role in advancing market adoption, by making high-performance BOPE-HD films more accessible than ever before.
Image courtesy of NOVA Chemicals.

Why was multi-material popular?

Historically, multi-material structures were used as they allowed optimization of both processing and performance by leveraging the attributes of each material, especially stiffness for standing up on shelves, and heat resistance for highspeed processing. The most common structures used biaxially oriented polyethylene terephthalate (BOPET) or polypropylene (BOPP), alongside polyethylene films.

While the market enjoyed the properties of these multi-material laminates, it came at the cost of recyclability and created a challenging barrier to implement monomaterial solutions.

In targeting multi-material structures, such a package presents a major hurdle to basic blown polyethylene (PE) films which lack the heat resistance and stiffness to perform in production and in packaging. Fortunately, there is promise in new PE materials and equipment technology that break down barriers to tackle the large, untapped volume of multi-material packaging through a mono-material solution. Suppliers have developed high-performance grades of PE to meet various performance requirements which serve as building blocks for a transition to a mono-material packaging designed for recyclability now and in the future.

PE possibilities

Biaxially oriented polyethylene (BOPE) films are one key building block to create mono-material designs for flexible packaging formats to displace BOPET multi-material laminates and even BOPP films. This provides an alternative for flexible packaging formats such as stand-up pouches, flow wrap, chip, snack and pillow packs that are not currently accepted into a recycling stream due to their multi-material design.

Suppliers like NOVA Chemicals have taken BOPE one step further with the development of the world’s first high-density (BOPE-HD) resins specifically designed to run in the tenter frame process, combining aesthetics, functionality and processability. BOPE-HD overcomes the limitations of linear low-density PE (LLDPE), which can be stretched but lacks stiffness and heat resistance.

By making these resins globally accessible, existing packaging processes have been transformed into a cost-effective solution for mono-material packaging designs. Production of BOPE-HD films is growing as more companies adopt BOPE technology, driven to close the gap between strong demand projections and existing supply. Pursuing an all PE-solution with BOPE has the additional benefit of leveraging existing tenter-frame assets that are used to produce BOPP, and the resultant films can run on existing converting and extrusion equipment and is prepared for scale due to the large existing base of polyethylene manufacturing.

Another key opportunity for sustainability advancements are via PE-based sealant resins, which offer excellent seal strength along with multiple sustainability benefits. Their durability and puncture-resistance supports downgauging and lightweighting, resulting in overall material reductions. With a broad sealing window, they display excellent processability and maintain package integrity on high-speed packaging equipment. Their flexibility makes them useful in a wide variety of applications from food packaging to heavy duty sacks.

Leading the charge

More and more companies are setting ambitious sustainability and net-zero emissions goals. To reach these targets, brand owners and retailers must lead a strategic transformation of the way packaging is designed, produced, and recycled. Research from McKinsey has shown that a complete materials transition, which involves the use of lower-emissions materials and circular economy principles to promote material reuse, will be instrumental in making a net-zero future a reality.

Mono-material packaging is a significant step on the journey to a more sustainable production model. Leading the transition will require collaboration across the value chain, and brand owners should consistently work with material suppliers and biaxially oriented film manufacturers to understand the materials and options that are currently available to enable recyclable packaging. Companies must continue to explore new possibilities for plastic innovation, embracing new technology that supports recycling and recyclability.

About the Author

Brant Wunderlich has extensive in the packaging industry and is currently the market manager for plastomers and oriented films at NOVA Chemicals, a leading producer of polyethylene resin.  NOVA Chemicals applications development experts constantly strive to solve industry challenges and circular solutions for our customers and organizations across the value chain.

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