Circular Design for
Film Packaging

Moving Away from a Linear Economy

Transitioning away from a disposable culture toward a circular economy is vital to the future of our planet. A circular economy is defined by resources being kept in use for as long as possible, with waste minimized and materials recycled and repurposed. This model is in stark contrast to the linear economy, where resources are used once and then disposed of. It’s a ‘Take, Make, Use, Dispose, and Pollute’ model which dates back to the Industrial Revolution, and is one in which production and resources are considered to be unlimited. However, as we now know, this is no longer sustainable and has resulted in overproduction, accumulation of waste, and depletion of natural resources.

Innovative Solutions Are Needed

To enable this circular economy in packaging specifically, each type of packaging material needs to be examined individually to develop new solutions that enable the efficient reuse, recycling, and repurposing of materials. Current packaging designs that have been optimized over many years without the element of circularity all need to be re-imagined. Packaging made from principally plastic film substrates makes up a large portion of all packaging across many different types of end markets and applications. Increasing the sustainability of film packaging can pose a particular challenge as much of these are made up of multiple layers of different types of materials that provide different functions within the overall package. These re-imagined designs can incorporate new materials and new production techniques designed to reduce waste and minimize environmental impact.

Designing for the Circular Economy

Planet-friendly products require collaboration throughout the entire value chain, spanning raw material suppliers, converters, brand owners, and recirculation management. Tangible benefits come from collective efforts to create genuinely sustainable and circular solutions. Improved end-of-life options must be considered from the outset of the package design process. This approach prioritizes finding ways to create sustainable, resilient, long-lasting value in the circular economy.


The Recycling Rate is the Biggest Challenge

Plastic is often the best material for packaging goods due to its light weight and protective properties. It helps avoid food waste, which is one of the worst offenders for carbon footprint. However, plastic also has the lowest global recycling rate of any major category of material. Expansion of collection, and advancements in sorting and recycling technology are needed—along with consumer education—to increase these recycling rates. And, packaging design innovation must be undertaken now to develop the structures that will meet the needs of this challenge.

The amount of plastic produced annually is over 450M tons, similar to the amount of paper and board produced. Of that, roughly one third is used for packaging, with an average lifespan of only six months. In Europe, the current recycling target for plastic packaging is 25%. By 2030, the recycling rate could be 33%, and still 66% of plastic waste would be discarded or incinerated. In fact, of the 5.8 billion tons of single-use plastic produced since 1950, only 9% has been recycled.1

(1) Source: R. Geyer et al. (2017), OECD Global Plastics Outlook

Downgauging Film Structures

One part of the solution is to develop homogenous, mono-material structures that, with the addition of ultra-thin barrier coatings, can be made to match the performance of their more complex multi-material counterparts, with the added benefits of being simpler to produce, lighter in weight, and easier to recycle. The annual average growth rate for mono-material plastic packaging film consumption is projected to be 4.5% during 2023-2028.1

Mono-materials help make packaging more compatible with existing recycling streams and their sorting and processing functions. Complex separation is not required during recycling, therefore reducing waste and yielding higher-quality recovered materials.

(1) Source: Smithers

Disposability & Compostability Energy Discovery Recyclability Reusability Minimization Prevention More Favorable Less Favorable Moving Up The Sustainability Pyramid Most plastic packaging today is disposed of or incinerated. How do we get here?

One Example of How Michelman Is Driving Circular Design Through Innovation

Working in collaboration with value chain partners BOBST, Dow, Sun Chemical, and Zermatt, we have co-created an innovative new mono-material metallized film structure in our quest to drive greater circularity through design. Called oneBARRIER PrimeCycle, this new structure is certified AAA (98%) recyclable by Cyclos-HTP.

  • MDO-PE mono-material construction compliant with CEFLEX D4ACE packaging guidelines
  • Certified Class AAA recyclable (98%) by cyclos-HTP
  • Excellent retention of barrier properties throughout the supply chain

PE Sealant Adhesive MDO-PE Ink AlOx Primer ( Michem® Flex B3530)

Michelman developed a new multifunctional coating for this structure that allows it to match the high barrier performance of current non-recyclable metallized films. This single coating acts as a primer for the metallization process, while also providing improved oxygen, moisture, and mineral oil barriers. It is EVOH & PVDC free, and food contact compliant. Effective at very low coat weights, it is compatible with a wide range of films, including PE, BOPP, and PET.

Collaboration Is Key

While the challenge to improving sustainability in packaging remains significant and complex, there is also tremendous potential for new innovative solutions that meet this challenge. Collaboration is essential to driving this shift from linear, single-use products to a sustainable end of life. Designing sustainable package substitutes through new materials and processes requires tailor-made solutions that can only effectively be done through joint work throughout the value chain.