European projects

Ecopaperloop: looking to a standard method for the quality of recycling paper

The score card for the recycling potential of cellulose packaging.

An estimate based on a points-scoring system can, on scientific basis, determine the impact of packaging at the end of its life cycle, depending on how easy or difficult it is to recycle in standard plants: this will lead designers to reason in more sustainable terms.

Graziano Elegir, project manager at Innovhub-SSI
Graziano Elegir, project manager at Innovhub-SSI.

The various objectives of the Ecopaperloop project include the preparation of a score card to evaluate the recycling potential of the cellulose packaging; this is one of the most relevant goals because it comes under the scope of the improvement of the quality of design and packaging: «a score card that enables the scientific evaluation of the impact of packaging during the end of its life cycle can provide a more “technical” aid to manufacturers and designers in developing packaging with ever better characteristics in terms of recycling potential», explains Graziano Elegir, coordinator of the European Ecopaperloop project and manager for the environment and recycling of Innovhub. The first draft of the score card has not yet been published, but has only been discussed (and is still being discussed) in a European public consultation of the paper chain during which the category associations and companies were asked to express an opinion.

The legislative framework is the Waste Packaging Directive, and one of the problems often encountered by packaging manufacturers is the need to have technical documents in support of self-certification, because whilst in the case of organic recycling (and therefore composting and energy recovery), the reference European rules are fairly clear, for the recycling of materials, the situation is far more complex. There is a CEN Report, providing very general indications on materials that are recommended or otherwise, but basically, when it comes down to it, establishing just how far a given product can or cannot be recycled is no easy task. Today, there is also another rule governing this segment – not specifically for packaging, but rather which is valid for all recycling paper, the EN643 – which establishes a series of categories of groups, divided up according to the quality of these materials and, therefore, according to the use made in the paper industry.

The regulatory background

Waste packaging directive

  • EN 13427 General framework

  • End of life

  • EN 13430 Material recycling

  • CEN report 13688

  • Company self-certification

  • EN 13432 Organic recycling (Potential composting)

  • EN 13431 Energy recovery

The rules for the design of packaging recycling

When we talk about the design to allow for the recycling of packaging, there are a few, simple rules to be bear in mind, Mr Eligir explains: «On the one hand, opt for mono-materials, although paper does not have all the properties, particularly barrier features, necessary to act properly as packaging for a whole series of food products, hence clearly, there are non-paper components in a great many products. In this case, the general suggestion is to obtain the barrier effect whilst minimising non-paper components, as this result in lesser waste in the mill. Another, very simple rule is to minimise adhesives and Wet strenght agents, and this is because paper is mainly recycled by being dissolved in water, with mechanical forces. Very few chemical reagents are used, however everything that is dissolved in the water, including adhesives, basically then follows the same route taken by the fibres, and it is very difficult to separate it from these. Adhesives, by contrast, must not be solubilised but instead fragment into particles that are not too small, in order to be then separated from the fibres using cleaners».

Test Method EcoPaperLoop 1 for packaging products

To end up with a definition of the Test Method EcoPaperLoop 1 for packaging products, the starting point was the existing methods – the German method PTS-RH021/97 (Ecolabel criterion to evaluate the recycling potential of transformed products) and the equivalent Italian method Aticelca MC 501-13 – seeking to develop them to ensure that they were ever closer to the reality of recycling on an industrial scale. In actual fact, both have some critical issues, using very small quantities of materials in terms of packaging and at times that are not entirely representative; the waste generated in the laboratory is not always perfectly in line with the industrial plants, because the laboratory instruments have very different characteristics to industrial plants and, finally, the impact of adhesives is present in the Aticelca method, but not in the German method.

In the new method, on the other hand, half a kilogram of material or product is used, and, therefore, most of the packaging products can be considered representative. Four parameters are evaluated: coarse reject (i.e. the waste, mainly plastics, aluminium if present), flake content (the flakes of fibres that are not disintegrated) Macrostickies area (the area of the adhesive present after product disintegration) and Optical homogeneity (optical homogeneity of the leaflets that are re-done after having recycled the product).

Test Method EcoPaperLoop 1 for packaging products. Product categories analysed
  • Corrugated boxes
  • Folding boxboard
  • Bags (open bags with handles)
  • Sacks (all sizes) – pure paper
  • Sacks (all sizes) – with composite material
  • Liquid Packaging
  • Moulded products
  • Others

Recyclability score card proposal

The basic consideration is that cellulose packaging is normally recyclable, and the score card has been developed to promote the improvement of product recyclability: it is applicable to all groups from 1 to 5 (ref. EN 643), whilst it does not apply to the graphic products that must be de-inked and for which there are already specific methods and a score card recognised by ERPC and Ecolabel criteria for printed products. Finally, the method can be applied to both the end product and intermediate products (score: from -100 to +100). Here is how it works: for each parameter, a threshold value and an objective has been established, with the exception of optical properties, which cannot be measured quantitatively.

The quality parameters (MSA, OH)

Parameter Coarse Reject (CR) Flake Content (FC) Macro Stickies Area (MSA) Optical Homogen (OH) Total
Maximum Score  35 15 40 10 100 
Process Parameters Quality Parameters


Main comments

Below are the main comments to be used to define the final version of the score card.

  • Some of the products considered as non-recyclable in standard plants can, in any case, recyclable in specialised plants.
  • The threshold values must comply with what is effectively manageable (recyclable) in a standard plant.
  • The flake content parameter should not be considered insofar as flakes are fibres that can be recovered by using deflakers.
  • A specific test would be required for multi-material (composite) products normally processed in specialised plants, where both the fibre and other components can be optimised.
  • Water-soluble adhesives are developed to improve safety in food contact.
  • Tests on adhesives yield unclear results on some products currently being developed (barrier coatings).