Packaging expert Steve Brownett-Gale of Lifestyle Packaging explains the problem of multi-material packaging, which is being used in pharma, cosmetics, food and beverage, and more.

Multi-material, or multilayered packaging, has grown in popularity across multiple industries, with up to 20% of plastic packaging consisting of multilayer materials.

But this practice is causing a significant recycling problem that is impacting ecological protection efforts and damaging consumer perception and brand reputation for businesses.

So, what are the current challenges of recycling multi-material packaging? And why are brand responsibility and effective recycling initiatives for better disposal so important?

Understanding multi-material packaging

Multi-material packaging refers to a type of packaging that is composed of two or more distinct materials to create a single solution.

These materials are typically selected based on their specific properties and functionalities, such as barrier protection, high structural integrity and aesthetic appeal. It’s commonly used across many industries, such as pharma, cosmetics, and food and beverage, to meet diverse packaging requirements.

Some popular examples include stand-up pouches, commonly used to package snacks and household products. These usually feature a combination of plastic and foil for enhanced durability. Flexible packaging options, like bags and sachets are another example which use multiple layers of plastic, foil and paper for flexibility.

There are multiple benefits to using multilayered packaging:

Enhanced product protection — It often combines different materials with complementary properties to boost strength, flexibility and barrier properties for superior protection during handling, transportation and storage.

Longer shelf life — The shelf life of perishable items can be extended, as combining materials with moisture barrier properties can preserve products for longer periods.

Branding opportunities — Multi-material packaging can provide greater design and customisation flexibility by allowing brands to create solutions that align with the brand and stand out on the shelf.

Regulatory compliance — Multi Layered packaging can often be a requirement to comply with product safety, hygiene and labelling standards. Using it can ensure compliance with legal requirements to avoid potential violations and penalties.

Functional versatility — It can be tailored to include specific features like resealable closures, accessible opening mechanisms and child-resistant designs, to enhance usability and consumer convenience.

However, there are also numerous challenges facing the multilayered packaging industry:

Recycling difficulties — The inclusion of multiple materials can complicate the recycling process, as it can be a struggle for recycling facilities to successfully separate and recycle each component efficiently.

Consumer confusion — Recycling complexities can also confuse consumers as different materials may require varying disposal methods which can be made difficult by unclear labelling, leading to incorrect disposal methods.

Waste generation — Struggles with correct recycling can and are causing mounting waste, as multi-material packaging that is not designed with recycling in mind can end up in landfills or at incineration facilities, exacerbating ecological issues.

Higher production costs — Designing and manufacturing this packaging can be more complex, costly and time-consuming than single-material alternatives. Producing it may require specialised equipment, additional quality and control measures and extra testing stages, which impacts profits and pricing strategy. 

Where does multi-material packaging stand in the recycling landscape

The existing UK recycling infrastructure is not capable of effectively sorting and processing multi-material packaging, as a report revealed that our recycling systems are in desperate need of an overhaul and improved standardisation.

Current frameworks remain fragmented due to regional differences in collection systems, processing facilities and the destination of recycled materials.

Some areas will also have better-established local recycling programs than others that offer curbside collection services and more.

Packaging contamination remains a significant challenge during collection and transportation and due to incorrect sorting and disposal by consumers, with 84% of households found to be unintentionally contaminating their recycling.

This can reduce the quality and value of recycled materials which may in turn inflate processing costs.

Sorting and processing multi-material packaging poses a major problem in that some materials may not be compatible with existing recycling methods and systems.

The problem of multilayered packaging is characterised by the struggle to separate obviously different materials, but also materials that appear to be the same or look like single-material packaging when they are not.

Complications like this can make packaging difficult and costly to recycle which can lower recycling rates.

Despite this, gradual changes are being made. Improvements to recycling technology, like optical sorting and artificial intelligence, will likely improve long-term process efficiency by enabling more accurate sorting of materials and increasing automation.

Consumer awareness and engagement with recycling is also increasing, as 84% actively seek out recycling instructions on product packaging, and in the UK, understanding of recycling symbols has risen to 94 percent, which will likely improve recycling efforts and effectiveness.

Brand responsibility in creating sustainable packaging

Sustainability and multi-material packaging recycling efforts must be led by businesses to address challenges, firstly, to protect brand reputation.

Consumer attitudes toward environmental issues are increasingly influencing purchasing decisions, with more and more customers stating that poor environmental practices will alienate them from a brand.

Cosmetics retailer Lush has successfully responded to this demand by reducing packaging waste through offering products packaging-free and using more sustainable alternatives like fabric.

Businesses that demonstrate a commitment to corporate responsibility and sustainability are more likely to maintain consumer loyalty and maintain a positive brand image.

Multi-material packaging can often contribute to pollution and resource depletion due to its complex composition and limited recyclability, but by taking active responsibility, organisations can reduce their ecological footprint and prioritise using reusable materials to reduce waste production for increased environmental protection.

Companies that proactively address sustainability challenges via corporate responsibility initiatives are better positioned to comply with evolving regulatory requirements, which mitigates risks of compliance violations and ensures long-term business viability.

Sustainable packaging practices can also enhance supply chain efficiency by reducing material costs, optimising packaging size and weight, and minimising transport emissions for overall supply chain resilience.

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Brands can further incorporate recyclability into multi-material packaging design via multiple strategies:

Careful material selection — Select materials that are widely recyclable and have a lower environmental impact, such as glass, aluminium, paperboard and certain plastics that are accepted by recycling facilities. Additionally, if choosing plastic, ensure that only one type of plastic is used for all elements.

Simplifying design — Design packaging with recyclability in mind by minimising the use of complex packaging structures that hinder recycling and opt for easily separable components and materials that will aid material recovery during the recycling process.

Increased collaboration — Partner with suppliers, manufacturers and recyclers to optimise packaging design and recycling initiatives by identifying opportunities for improvement and implementing sustainability best practices.

Continuous improvement efforts — Regularly evaluate and assess recycling and sustainability performance metrics, like material usage, carbon footprint and recycling rates, to help set accurate targets for improvement and continuously refine packing design. 

How can businesses improve recycling initiatives?

To enhance multi-material recycling efforts, businesses should aim to increase consumer awareness of environmental issues and remain transparent by educating customers about effective waste management practices to foster a culture that encourages active participation in sustainable efforts.

Businesses that offer transparent communication about their packaging materials, recycling processes and practices are more likely to build trust with consumers, and investing in more effective recycling initiatives and infrastructure will ensure that consumer expectations are met.

Partnering with recycling companies can also help to enhance recycling infrastructure, as businesses can leverage their expertise and resources to support the development and expansion of facilities and sorting technologies for a more efficient recycling process.

Collaboration can also provide an opportunity for organisations to financially contribute to infrastructure investments like equipment upgrades and expanding processing capacity for boosted operational efficiency.

Partnerships can also facilitate more knowledge sharing and innovation that can keep businesses informed about emerging recycling practices to implement.

Standardising packaging materials can also improve recycling multi-material packaging initiatives by simplifying the sorting process.

Recyclers can more efficiently sort and separate materials that are standardised which will reduce contamination and boost material recovery rates.

Material standardisation is equally important for increasing consumer awareness and understanding of recycling requirements which will encourage consumer participation.

Finally, using the latest technologies to sort and process multi-material packaging can revolutionise initiatives as they can enable more accurate identification and separation of materials, even for complex multi-material packaging solutions. This will increase recycling rates and material purity which will reduce waste.

Innovative machinery can also offer more advanced methods for recovering valuable materials from multilayered packaging that traditional tools may not be able to save.