There’s no question that recycling rates for packaging materials are not as high as they need to be.
The growth of flexible packaging is not helping because legacy materials are difficult – if not impossible – to recycle. When a consumer has doubts about packaging recyclability (often caused by confusing labeling), the response is often to throw in the trash.
This is because the film used in packaging often consists of different layers, each being a different material to add specific properties to the finished package.
Mono-materials are important for recycling because they consist of a single material type, making them simpler to recycle than multi-material products. Multi-material products can be difficult or even impossible to recycle because their components often cannot be separated cleanly.
In contrast, mono-materials can usually be recycled without such issues. They can be cleanly separated, melted down, or otherwise processed back into a raw form that can be used to create new products. This makes mono-materials a more sustainable choice from a waste and recycling perspective, and thus they play a key role in promoting circular economy principles.
Mono-materials are also beneficial in reducing contamination in the recycling process. Contamination often occurs when different materials are mixed. In recycling, “contamination” can refer to non-recyclable materials mixed in with recyclable ones or even different types of recyclable materials mixed together. This can make the recycling process more complicated and less efficient, often resulting in lower-quality recycled materials.
Using mono-materials simplifies the design of products and packaging, making it easier for designers to consider end-of-life scenarios and design for recyclability from the outset. For example, a package made entirely of a single type of plastic could be more easily recycled than a package made of mixed materials.
Moreover, mono-materials could potentially be recycled infinitely, or at least many more times than mixed materials, because they maintain their properties better through the recycling process.
Lastly, because mono-materials simplify the recycling process, they also have the potential to reduce the cost of recycling, thereby making the whole process more financially viable and appealing for businesses and municipalities. This economic benefit, coupled with the environmental advantages, is why there’s a growing interest in mono-materials for promoting sustainable recycling practices.
Do Mono-Materials Perform as Well?
To extend the use of mono-materials, researchers and manufacturers are constantly developing and refining materials that have the required properties for a specific application but are also recyclable. For instance, traditionally, food packaging required different types of materials for different functions – plastic for flexibility, metal for strength, and perhaps a thin layer of aluminum for preservation. Nowadays, advancements in material science have allowed us to engineer single-material substitutes that can perform all these functions.
In addition, consumer education plays an important role. Many consumers aren’t aware of the difficulties that multi-material products pose for recycling. Raising awareness about mono-materials’ benefits can drive consumer demand for more sustainable products, pressuring manufacturers to switch to these materials.
Despite these benefits, there are challenges to be addressed. For instance, some businesses may have a high initial cost of transitioning to mono-materials. This would include modifications to existing packaging equipment (or even replacing legacy machines) to be able to run the new materials successfully. Also, for certain applications, a mono-material solution may not exist yet or perform as well as multi-material ones.
Still a Ways to Go.
There has been a lot of progress in making flexible packaging more sustainable.
With more research and development in material science, financial incentives, regulations favoring mono-materials, greater collaboration across industries and clearer labeling for consumers can be beneficial.
In terms of the recycling process, better sortation technologies are constantly being developed. Automated sorting systems using artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are becoming more sophisticated and efficient. They are capable of accurately identifying and separating different types of materials, thus making the recycling process more efficient, especially in dealing with mono-materials.
Recycling technology itself is also improving. Chemical recycling, which breaks down plastics to their molecular level and allows them to be repurposed without degrading the material’s quality, could offer a way to infinitely recycle certain types of plastics.
In summary, the importance of mono-materials in recycling is clear: they offer a more straightforward, efficient, and sustainable path to reusing materials. However, they are just one element of the broader changes needed in our society to achieve more sustainable consumption and waste management practices.