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School desks made from plastic waste close the loop

The Virtuous Circle project delivers school desks to South African children that are made from multilayer household packaging waste, including flexible packaging for meal replacement pouches.

Once schoolchildren had eaten their FUTURELIFE Smart food meals, they helped collect the pouches.
Once schoolchildren had eaten their FUTURELIFE Smart food meals, they helped collect the pouches.

Closing the loop on the Virtuous Circle project, more than 500 additional double school desks made from recycled plastics will be delivered to primary schools in South Africa over the course of the final school term of the year. In a recycling technology made possible by this multi-stakeholder circular economy partnership, the final batch of these desks will be made entirely from recycled waste from multi-material household packaging waste.

The Virtuous Circle has brought together business and civil society organizations from Europe and South Africa to develop new circular economy solutions for multilayer waste while educating children on the importance of nutrition, food waste prevention, and sustainability at the same time.

“Innovative partnerships that look at different angles of the same overall challenge are key to driving forward the circular economy,”says Tom McLaughlin, Responsible Sourcing at Woolworths Foods, one of the lead sponsors of the school desks along with Amcor, DuPont, and FUTURELIFE®.

At the heart of the Virtuous Circle are the schools that have taken part in the project. Since October 2016, more than 650,000 FUTURELIFE Smart food™ meals have been distributed to schools across South Africa in dual-compartment multilayer pouches designed to optimize the transport, storage, preparation, and consumption of nutritious children’s meals.

While the pouches are highly effective in terms of food waste prevention, the multi-material multilayer packaging involved has traditionally been considered difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. One of the core aims of the Virtuous Circle has been to challenge this assumption and test innovative methods of creating new products of genuine value from the recycled multilayer packaging waste.

Andrew Venter, CEO of the non-profit environmental organization—and key driver of the project—Wildlands, summarizes this objective: “In the short term, the reality is that multi-material multilayer packaging is necessary for its role in food life extension. As such, we need to find immediate solutions that allow for the associated post-consumer waste to be collected and processed. This is a real challenge as this material is currently not recycled. If solutions such as the Green Desk-based upcycling of this waste are not adopted, then we will continue to see this post-consumer film waste polluting our rivers and oceans, until alternative recyclable packaging solutions are found.”

The schoolchildren have played a key role in translating this ambition into action and creating a circular economy solution with a difference. Once they had eaten their FUTURELIFE Smart food meals, they helped collect the pouches and other difficult-to-recycle multilayer waste in their surroundings. The packaging was then collected by project partner Wildlands, which bulked it and then sent it off together with their other relevant post-consumer waste streams, including multi-material multilayer waste to another project partner, RWPA Solutions. RWPA Solutions converted the Wildlands-sourced post-consumer waste into a usable recyclate raw material, which was then extruded into plastic planking and assembled into Wildlands Green Desks.

The end product meets a genuine need, as according to the Tutu Foundation, the desk-shortage estimate is around 3 million in South Africa and 90 million across Africa. And importantly, by creating something with a direct impact on their everyday lives, children and teachers are able to experience firsthand the importance of sustainable waste management and the potential of the circular economy.

According to Katy Newham of Virtuous Circle partner Wastebuster, “Schools are a crucial platform for promoting understanding of these issues among young people, and to help transfer this knowledge back to their homes and communities. If informed, inspired, and empowered to deal with waste properly today, they can help secure a more sustainable future tomorrow.”

The final batch of desks that will be delivered during the upcoming school term marks an important development in recycling options for food packaging. RWPA and Wildlands had already managed to create school desks by combining multi-material packaging with other recycled waste. The initial round of desks already delivered to schools as part of the Virtuous Circle project contained a combination of recycled multi-material multilayer films, recycled FUTURELIFE Smart food pouches and recycled high-density polyethylene waste. The challenge was to find a way to produce desks—and other value-added products—using 100% multi-material waste.

The introduction of additives known as compatibilizers as part of the project has had a crucial impact on the recycling process, says the Virtuous Circle. Using compatibilizers, it is now possible to produce a 100% multilayer recyclate raw material that can be used to develop not only desks, but also products serving larger market segments, such as construction materials. This creates a whole new range of outlets for multilayer packaging in a circular economy.

“Working with DuPont, we were able to recycle different types of multilayer films together. What makes it special is the technology that overcomes the time-consuming sorting of the multilayer waste by component. In the past, this represented a significant barrier to cost-effective and efficient recycling. By recycling all multilayers together, we are changing the face of recycling in this area,”says Iqbal Hirji, Founder of RWPA.

As the initial Virtuous Circle pilot comes to close, partners on the ground in South Africa are currently identifying local sponsors to support the continuation of the school feeding and education programs. Project partners are also now looking into ways to take forward key learnings from the project and rolling them out in other locations, new sectors (e.g., transport and construction) and other areas of activity, such as humanitarian aid.

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