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ExxonMobil, Cyclyx International, Sealed Air, and Ahold Delhaize USA have successfully demonstrated a circular food packaging proof of concept, leveraging advanced recycling technology. This first-of-its-kind solution in the US collected plastic waste from grocery stores, diverting it from landfills. ExxonMobil’s Exxtend technology broke the plastic waste into molecular building blocks, converting it into new, food-grade packaging. The project, initially announced in April 2022, is now being evaluated for scalability. Ahold Delhaize USA brand Food Lion supported the pilot, collecting plastic waste at select locations.

Creating a circular economy for food packaging

Creating a circular economy for food contact plastic packaging has been a significant challenge for the industry, especially in applications with strict safety and performance requirements. “This project helps demonstrate how Exxtend technology can widen the range of plastic materials that can be recycled while delivering certified-circular polymers with the critical performance attributes of virgin plastic,” said Dan Moore, vice president, Polyethylene, ExxonMobil. Advanced recycling is becoming a powerful enabler for the circular economy, making the impossible possible.

Collaboration across the value chain

Cyclyx, a joint venture between Agilyx Corporation and ExxonMobil, played a crucial role in sorting and pre-processing the waste packaging materials collected from Food Lion stores before delivering them to ExxonMobil’s Baytown, Texas facility. “The interface between the Food Lion stores and the Baytown facility was critical and required an innovative approach to feedstock management,” said Joe Vaillancourt, CEO, Cyclyx. Cyclyx’s process identifies the chemical composition of the waste plastics received, enabling the creation of custom blends of post-use plastic feedstock tailored to the specifications required for advanced recycling.

From waste to certified-circular polymers

At the Baytown facility, Exxtend technology is used to recycle the valuable end of life plastics and attribute them via mass balance accounting to certified-circular polymers. “The technology provides a reliable source to attribute to high-performance, certified-circular polymers,” Moore said. The resulting polymers, such as Exceed™ S, Exceed™ XP, Exceed™, and Enable™ performance polyethylene (PE), possess characteristics of virgin resins, which is critical for food-grade packaging.

Converting polymers into food-grade packaging

Sealed Air, a leading innovator in the packaging industry, converts the certified-circular PE resins into food-grade flexible film. In this proof of concept, the film was used to package select Nature’s Promise fresh poultry. The packaging then returned to stores, used on products purchased by customers, demonstrating an example of the circular economy in action. “By collaborating with suppliers and customers, we were able to identify, design, and commercialize an innovative flexible packaging solution which supports circularity,” said Ron Cotterman, vice president, Global Corporate Affairs, Sealed Air.

Scaling up advanced recycling capacity

Leveraging ExxonMobil’s existing manufacturing assets, Exxtend technology can be rapidly scaled to process a wide range of plastic waste. To help meet the growing market demand for certified-circular plastics, ExxonMobil plans to increase its annual advanced recycling capacity to 500,000 metric tons, or approximately 1 billion pounds, by year-end 2026 across multiple sites globally. This fully-expanded process could make a significant impact on recycling plastic waste, supporting the transition to a circular economy.

Challenges and future prospects

Despite the success of this proof of concept, Brightmark CEO Bob Powell warned that current advanced recycling technology cannot infinitely recycle plastics, as the material will eventually break down, and there is inequality between supply and demand in the sector. In Europe, increasing capacity, convincing stakeholders to accept and invest in chemical recycling are challenges, according to Chemical Recycling Europe’s new secretary general, John Sewell. Amcor, a global packaging company, signed a five-year deal with ExxonMobil for an increasing supply of certified circular recycled polyethylene.