Updated: A coalition of companies with a shared vision to close the loop on soft plastics have produced the country’s first ever soft plastic food wrapper made with recycled content for Nestlé's KitKat brand of chocolate bars. PKN spoke to key players involved in the project.
Food grade recycled soft plastic packaging is a vital missing link in Australia’s bid to improve waste management and build a circular economy, and the prototype KitKat wrapper represents Australia’s opportunity to close the loop on recycling soft plastics.
The coalition of companies comprises Nestlé (the program lead), CurbCycle, iQ Renew, Licella, Viva Energy Australia, LyondellBasell, REDcycle, Taghleef Industries and Amcor – all of whom brought their individual expertise to the table for the prototype’s creation.
Here's how the prototype was made here in Australia: Soft plastics, which were collected (via REDCycle and kerbside collection -- more on this below), sorted and cleaned by iQ Renew, were then converted by technology startup Licella into liquid Plasticrude – a synthetic crude oil consisting of 100 per cent recycled plastic. The Plasticrude was fed into Viva Energy’s Geelong Refinery where it was processed in the Residual Catalytic Cracking Unit (RCCU) to turn it into the basis of the polymer products created by LyondellBasell. The food-grade propylene created by LyondellBasell was used by Taghleef Industries to create a metallised film, which was used by Australian packaging giant Amcor Flexibles to create the prototype KitKat wrapper, before delivery to Nestlé.
From idea to production, the wrapper was four months in the making, Nestlé's head of packaging Jacky Nordsvan tells PKN.
“As we’ve sought to find ways to improve the future for plastic in Australia, we’ve talked with organisations right through the value chain. The concept for the prototype emerged from those discussions and in particular, from the work that we’re doing with iQ Renew on a kerbside trial to collect soft plastics. We wanted to find a way to demonstrate what’s possible," she said.
Nordsvan said: “A collaboration of this many companies, right through a circular value chain which we’d never explored before, was new for everyone, and required everyone to think differently. I can’t speak highly enough of the vision, persistence and collaborative spirit of everyone involved in this: while challenges were inevitable right through the process, we were able to overcome them, as everyone could see the importance of the longer term goal.”
Nordsvan adds, “This prototype KitKat pack has been developed specifically to demonstrate that Australian industry has the willingness and capability to engage on the challenge of improving the future of soft plastics, and to show what’s possible. We want to encourage others to share our vision of a better future for soft plastics in Australia.”
Amcor Flexibles director of sustainability, Richard Smith, weighs in, telling PKN: “This collaboration provides evidence of how soft plastics can be part of the circular economy when stakeholders across the entire value chain work together. Soft plastics are a great packaging format, which are strong, have great barrier properties, are lightweight and cost efficient. And now we know they can be recycled and reused in packaging. This is a fantastic outcome for the environment and our communities as all of the benefits of soft plastics are retained and there is also less waste in the environment.”
Turning soft plastic back into oil is currently the only path plastic waste can take if it is to be transformed into a food safe wrapper. Unfortunately, this is technology that Australia does not have yet at scale.
“The prototype has demonstrated that there’s a pathway to improve the future for soft plastics in Australia, however, collection and processing need to be scaled up," Nordsvan says. "To build this at scale, across all states and territories, across hundreds of councils, is going to take a huge effort from government at all levels, from industry and from consumers, but we believe it can be done.”
“Manufacturers like Nestlé will have a key role in driving demand for food grade recycled soft plastic packaging, and creating market conditions that will ensure all stakeholders throughout the value chain view soft plastics as a resource and not waste.”
The initiative emerged from a project underway on the NSW Central Coast, where Australian Recycler iQ Renew and Nestlé are working together on a trial of kerbside collection of soft plastics.
These collected plastics, together with plastics collected via REDcycle supermarket soft plastic collection and the CurbCycle Curby Program, formed the starting point for the project.
To date, soft plastics collected in Australia have been made into products like outdoor furniture, added to road base or used in waste to energy.
“To improve the recycling rate of soft plastics, kerbside collection is an important point of convenience,” explains Danial Gallagher, CEO of iQ Renew.
“In the trial, soft plastics are collected from kerbside recycling bins in a dedicated bright yellow bag, then sorted from the recycling stream at our MRF.
“To create the KitKat wrapper with 30 per cent recycled content, the soft plastics were processed, then sent to Licella for conversion back into the oil from which they originally came. This oil was then used to produce new food grade soft plastics.”
According to Tanya Barden, CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), learnings from the Central Coast trial will be informative as the AFGC works to develop an extended producer responsibility scheme for hard to recycle plastics, funded by a National Product Stewardship Investment Fund grant.
“Among other things, we’ll be looking at how this model can be scaled up, ensuring there is healthy demand for packaging with recycled content and helping bring to life local industries that can unlock billions of dollars of value that’s currently lost to landfill,” Barden continues.
On 19 March, Nestlé will host leaders from across the plastic packaging value chain for a roundtable event, The Wrap on Soft Plastics, exploring the opportunities and hurdles for soft plastics recycling.