The ‘pioneering’ closed-loop collaboration behind Mars’ sustainable packaging innovation
Snacks-to-pet food giant Mars Inc aims to reduce its use of virgin plastic by 25% and incorporate 30% recycled content into its plastic packaging.
“At Mars Incorporated, we want to contribute to a circular economy where packaging material never becomes waste, but is recycled, reused or composted. For this to happen, we need new solutions and infrastructure to change the recycling landscape and to compliment mechanical recycling,” explained Barry Parkin, Chief Procurement and Sustainability Officer.
To this end, Mars says it is investing ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ to redesign more than 12,000 packaging types - nearly half its portfolio - to make them easier for consumers to recycle in existing or expected future recycling infrastructures. The global snacking giant has also indicated it supports investment in ‘advanced recycling’, where food safe flexible packs can be converted back into plastic material through systems that produce fewer emissions than current alternatives, such as incineration and the use of virgin fossil-based plastics.
An early result of this approach was unveiled this week: new KIND packaging that is both recyclable and leverages ‘advanced recycling’ to reduce its virgin plastic content.
Value chain collaboration and technological innovation to close the loop
The new packaging solution is produced by recycling used mixed plastic. To appreciate the significance of this breakthrough, it is first important to understand the particular problem that mixed flexible packaging presents.
According to the OECD, only 9% of the plastic produced today is recycled. The rest is destined for incineration, landfill, or leaks into the environment. Because plastic is a ‘forever material’, failure to manage end-of-life effectively means its disposal increases carbon emissions, plastic pollution and the presence of microplastics in our soils and waterways. Flexible packaging – commonly used in the food sector – presents a particular problem to existing recycling infrastructure due to the high cost of collecting, sorting and recycling this lightweight plastic.
“Mixed used plastic from flexible consumer packaging is difficult to sort and recycle mechanically,” observed Uwe Echteler, Chief Operating Officer for Landbell Group, an environmental services supplier that collaborated on the KIND project.
The ability of companies across the food industry to increase the amount of recycled content they include in their flexible packaging also faces some supply-side constraints. There is currently limited availability of food-grade recycled material, particularly food-grade recycled polypropylene (rPP) and polyethylene (rPE).
The KIND project aims to help tackle both of these issues. It is a unique ‘closed loop’ collaboration, designed in partnership with other players across the value-chain.
The loop starts with the collection of mixed used plastics, which is coordinated by Landbell Group. Landbell works with Hündgen Entsorgung to sort the mixed used plastics and delivers the mixed material to Plastic Energy, an innovator in advanced recycling technology.
Through a patented thermal anaerobic conversion process Plastic Energy converts the converted to pyrolysis oil. “Advanced recycling is a technological innovation which breaks plastic down into its original oils; so that it can be remade into new plastic packaging materials without using virgin plastic,” Mars told this publication. “It recycles used plastic back to the molecular level through a process called pyrolysis. The technology breaks down used plastic by heating it at a very high temperature in an oxygen-free environment, producing pyrolysis oil. This advanced recycling process produces certified food-grade material through feedstock recycling of used mixed plastic that could otherwise be destined for incineration or landfill.”
The pryoil then serves as alternative feedstock in SABIC’s production process of virgin-quality food-contact approved rPP polymer. “SABIC uses the pyrolysis oil from this process just like fossil-based feedstock to produce new materials that can address strict quality requirements, such as certain hygiene standards for food packaging,” the spokesperson detailed.
Next, the rPP polymer is pelletized and supplied to Taghleef Industries, a provider of biaxially oriented PP (BOPP) film. SIT Group, a supplier of printed flexible plastic packaging to the European consumer market, uses this BOPP film to create printed BOPP roll-fed packaging for KIND brand snack bars and delivers it to Mars.
“We are very excited about this pioneering closed-loop project that demonstrates the feasibility and speed of implementing circular plastic innovations when leading actors from across the entire value chain are closely collaborating. Used flexible packaging has a high feedstock value for new materials,” stressed Lada Kurelec, General Manager PP, PET, PS, PVC, PU & Elastomers Businesses for Petrochemicals at SABIC.
“We can facilitate effective advanced recycling solutions that allow plastics and packaging manufacturers as well as OEMs and brand owners to reclaim and benefit from the value of mixed used plastics while at the same time reducing fossil depletion and enhancing their carbon footprint,” enthused Landbell’s Echteler.
Mono-material for easier recycling
This cross-industry collaboration allows Mars to increase the recycled content in KIND wrapping. The company has also considered how it can help cut the amount of plastic that fails to come back into the loop and the new material has been ‘completely redesigned’ for ‘maximum circularity’.
Most flexible packaging used in the food industry is a complex, multi-layered material, making it even harder to recycle. In contrast, the new flexible BOPP packaging structure made with circular food-grade PP is an ‘important milestone’ towards ‘enabling mono-material applications that facilitate end-of-life recycling in existing collection and conversion streams without compromising on quality or ease of processing’, according to SABIC.
“The new packaging is a lighter-weight wrapper which is made from recyclable mono-material polypropylene instead of complex laminated plastic incorporating multi-material layers,” Mars added.
This means the new KIND wrappers are eligible for drop-off recycling in the UK and kerbside recycling in Ireland, where the innovation will initially roll out.
“The new packaging will arrive in stores this month and will be rolled out across the UK and Ireland over the next six months to all KIND products,” a company spokesperson told FoodNavigator. While the spokesperson noted ‘it is important to note that we are switching across to the new packaging gradually as we use up existing packaging stocks to ensure that no packaging is wasted’, the company is currently ‘developing plans to expand across Europe as soon as possible’.
As well as reducing plastic pollution and addressing the end-of-life challenge, SABIC’s certified circular PP polymer can help to lower the carbon footprint of food packaging. It is verified and authenticated in a mass balancing approach under the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) PLUS scheme. The certified circular products from the supplier’s TRUCIRCLE portfolio offer a carbon footprint reduction in the range of 2 kg of CO2 per each kilogram of polymer produced, based on the diversion of post-consumer used plastic from incineration.
“Today marks another important step in accelerating our sustainable packaging journey and in our collaboration with partners like SABIC that are enabling new opportunities to provide consumers with packaging designed for circularity,” Mars’ Parkin concluded.