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Live at drupa: Recycle-ready Barrier Paper, Mono-OPE Flexible Packs Await Infrastructure

Recyclable, mono-material, high-barrier substrates result from supply chain partnerships, from raw materials suppliers to converters and packaging machinery OEMs to brands. But the real barrier to recycling is a lack of curbside recycling infrastructure.

'We said at the beginning, we need to replace the aluminum layer, but we said we should also avoid over-engineering when possible. So we set ourselves two separate targets. The first one was to find a barrier level which is the equivalent of metalized PET. And we're talking barrier to water vapor (WVTR) and barrier to oxygen (OTR). The equivalent of metallized PET is a barrier of less than 1 OTR, and less than 1 WVTR. We also needed a barrier which is equivalent to aluminum. So we need to have less than 0.1, OTR and less than 0.1 WVTR. And if you look at the values here, AluBond, the metallized version, has three points. And that is the equivalent of less than 0.1 OTR and WVTR, so that's your aluminum barrier. And for those who don't need that level, you can have the option of the transparent version, which here you can see as the AlOx (aluminum oxide), we've called it and that has two pluses, because that's that less than 1 OTR, and less than 1 WVTR. In our language to simplify things we call one high barrier and the other ultra-high barrier,' Alexander says.
"We said at the beginning, we need to replace the aluminum layer, but we said we should also avoid over-engineering when possible. So we set ourselves two separate targets. The first one was to find a barrier level which is the equivalent of metalized PET. And we're talking barrier to water vapor (WVTR) and barrier to oxygen (OTR). The equivalent of metallized PET is a barrier of less than 1 OTR, and less than 1 WVTR. We also needed a barrier which is equivalent to aluminum. So we need to have less than 0.1, OTR and less than 0.1 WVTR. And if you look at the values here, AluBond, the metallized version, has three points. And that is the equivalent of less than 0.1 OTR and WVTR, so that's your aluminum barrier. And for those who don't need that level, you can have the option of the transparent version, which here you can see as the AlOx (aluminum oxide), we've called it and that has two pluses, because that's that less than 1 OTR, and less than 1 WVTR. In our language to simplify things we call one high barrier and the other ultra-high barrier," Alexander says.

Sara Alexander demonstrates BOBST oneBARRIER PrimeCycle AlOx high barrier PE monomaterial packaging substrate certified with a recyclability level of 98% (slightly lower when printed, depending on print and ink specs).Sara Alexander demonstrates BOBST oneBARRIER PrimeCycle AlOx high barrier PE monomaterial packaging substrate certified with a recyclability level of 98% (slightly lower when printed, depending on print and ink specs).In the realm of packaging, the drive toward sustainability has become a pressing issue, compelling companies to rethink their materials and processes. But the push for more sustainable solutions is not merely a trend but a market-driven necessity. Regulatory pressures and various plastic taxes are forcing companies to innovate while the topic of EPR is circling the industry at every turn.

“Who has the responsibility at the end of the day? It seems to be that it is the brand owner, but how much of that will be transferred onto the converter? That's still a gray area, and it seems to be left to interpretation in different countries,” Sara Alexander, marketing communications manager, flexible packaging, BOBST, told Packaging World at drupa last week.

Looking at the layers

For decades, flexible packaging has relied on multi-material solutions, particularly those incorporating aluminum layers, which provided (and still provide) excellent barrier properties but posed significant recycling challenges. At the BOBST booth at drupa, barrier mono-material expert Alexander shared the company’s latest breakthroughs in film that address recycling issues long plaguing flexible packaging and pouches.  

"The typical products, the triplex where you have maybe PE/PE, but that layer of aluminum in the middle, means that we cannot separate and we cannot recycle," said Alexander. "We have to move away from multi-material solutions that we cannot separate and recycle.”

But it’s not an easy maneuver. Aluminum may the gold standard for barrier protection, but some packaging today can be “over-engineered,” with aluminum barrier protection overshooting the needs of the product. Some products don’t in fact require that high level of barrier protection to keep food fresh.

"If you think, well, I've always had aluminum, but ask yourself, do I really need that level of aluminum? Do I need the less than 0.1 barrier to oxygen and less than 0.1 barrier to water vapor? The answer is probably not," Alexander explained.

So, how do you remove the aluminum and still have barrier in the film? How do you bring barrier and seal-ability to substrates that have little or no inherent barrier at all?

"We said at the beginning, we need to replace the aluminum layer, but we said we should also avoid over-engineering when possible. So we set ourselves two separate targets (see image at top of article to compare). The first one was to find a barrier level which is the equivalent of metalized PET. And we're talking barrier to water vapor (WVTR) and barrier to oxygen (OTR). The equivalent of metallized PET is a barrier of less than 1 OTR, and less than 1 WVTR. We also needed a barrier which is equivalent to aluminum. So we need to have less than 0.1, OTR and less than 0.1 WVTR. And if you look at the values here, AluBond, the metallized version, has three points. And that is the equivalent of less than 0.1 OTR and WVTR, so that's your aluminum barrier. And for those who don't need that level, you can have the option of the transparent version, which here you can see as the AlOx (aluminum oxide), we've called it and that has two pluses, because that's that less than 1 OTR, and less than 1 WVTR. In our language to simplify things we call one high barrier and the other ultra-high barrier," Alexander explained.

Meet the new material

And that’s what the company did. Meeting the sustainability and machinability goals in mind, BOBST, along with leading industry partners, launched its new oneBARRIER line of both paper and OPE film.Sara Alexander with a BOBST oneBARRIER FiberCycle pouch and multilayer structure model.Sara Alexander with a BOBST oneBARRIER FiberCycle pouch and multilayer structure model.

oneBARRIER is a family of industrially viable recycle-ready mono-material ultra-high and high barrier duplex and triplex substrates for packaging designers as alternatives to non-recyclable metallized polyester film.

The family of BOBST oneBARRIER sustainable solutions to date includes PrimeCycle, comprising EVOH and topcoat-free transparent AlOx-based or opaque AluBond-based full PE mono-substrates, and FibreCycle, a mono-material high-barrier paper-based structure coated with functional layers that can be recycled in the existing paper stream.

These new recyclable materials were born from a collaboration of industry leaders actively looking for a solution to the muti-layer, aluminum film that prevents flexible packaging from being recycled. Alexander shared the secret: having partners within the value chain, like suppliers of materials that want the visibility of being a part of this solution, as well as behind-the-scenes partners like brand owners.

In the partnership, BOBST plays a pivotal role in product development, offering its labs and equipment to test new materials, showing how it will work through all phases of production. Partners in PrimeCycle project include Dow for its resin, Sun Chemical for some of the coating and adhesive, and then Syntegon, which forms the package around the product, and proves its machineability. For paper-based FiberCycle, Michelman provided the coating chemistry, and UPM brought the the paper technology.

The downside of downgauging

Speaking of machinability, one of the significant hurdles is the machinability of new materials, especially ones that have been downgauged. This sentiment underscores the broader issue of adapting existing machinery to handle new, often more delicate, materials without compromising efficiency.

“You can imagine someone bought a machine a year ago and now they're suddenly having to deal with a PE-based substrate which is heat sensitive. So, you have to manage tension control. And then you have to look at paper, paper has to have moisture management. So, the configuration and the needs for each piece of machinery for each setup to monitor different materials changes dramatically,” said Alexander.

When it comes to running these new films or paper on existing equipment, testing proves to be invaluable. Through partnerships, companies can tap into the expertise of others and explore how new materials perform on existing equipment, testing each new stage in the package’s development. Plus, BOBST says it can grow its process expertise with the knowledge of how these new material types will perform on machinery.

“Brand owners come to us and say, ‘Can you help us we have these commitments; we've got some ideas,’ and they bring their own partners in terms of the suppliers. So, we have new substrates, new materials, new chemistries, and they did that in our competence centers, with our laboratories, and with our process experts. So, we gained even more knowledge because we had this wide array of materials and chemistries and combinations of them all to trial,” said Alexander. 

The proof is in the partnerships

This groundbreaking project was years in the making and borrowed insights and expertise from several leading industry partners like brand owners, suppliers, and even converters.Collaboration across the supply chain is needed for these types of products to come to market. These logos represent a handful of collaborators who wanted to be named, other stakeholders are also operating in parallel, but more quietly.Collaboration across the supply chain is needed for these types of products to come to market. These logos represent a handful of collaborators who wanted to be named, other stakeholders are also operating in parallel, but more quietly.

No one could do this alone. We're lucky to have the competence centers where we attract all three types of partners, even converters. And originally, we thought it was strange they coming to us because the other partners are coming because they don't have the equipment. But converters do. But they realized very quickly that the time needed to develop these solutions is very lengthy. And obviously they couldn't stop producing to dedicate their equipment to R&D. So, they are coming to our facilities to rent out the competence center, equipment, experts because even the converters made pledges and commitments to the market,” explained Alexander.

Some partners are proudly displayed in BOBST’s marketing materials, while others are more silent partners, and want to remain that way. That’s why the importance of transparency and trust in these collaborative efforts is paramount.

"We have to find the right balance between confidentiality for all of it. We have code names for the brand owners, and no one knows who they are," said Alexander.

This high level of confidentiality ensures that companies can innovate without the fear of losing their competitive edge. It also fosters a collaborative environment where stakeholders can share knowledge and resources to achieve common sustainability goals.

The journey toward sustainable packaging is complex, but with the right partnerships and technological advancements, it is a challenge that the industry is well-equipped to meet. As regulatory standards evolve, companies that have invested in sustainable solutions will be better positioned to comply and thrive. The collaborative model, involving multiple stakeholders across the value chain, offers a blueprint for addressing the multifaceted challenges of sustainable packaging.

It's worth noting that most mono films require store drop-off to be correctly recycled, at least in the U.S., and that step adds friction to busy consumers who would recycle if it were as easy as tossing in an appropriate bin. But programs around the world, including the U.S., are testing curbside programs. Infrastructure will have to scale, but the substrates themselves, like oneBARRIER, can be said to be recycle-ready. PW

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