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Sustainability Talks

Minnesota Stakeholders Work Toward Circular Economy for Flexible Film

MBOLD MBOLD
A multistakeholder group in Minnesota is working to create a circular economy for flexible film [primarily made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE)] in the Upper Midwest, and it’s engaging multiple partners along the supply chain.

A multistakeholder group in Minnesota is working to create a circular economy for flexible film [primarily made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE)] in the Upper Midwest, and it’s engaging multiple partners along the supply chain.

The founders of the coalition, called MBOLD –CEOs from General Mills, Cargill, Land O’ Lakes, Ecolab, and the president of the University of Minnesota—had known each other for some time, and saw untapped opportunities to collaborate on their shared sustainability interests.

“They recognized if there was a vehicle for such collaboration, they could take on bigger challenges together than they could alone, and that realization led to the creation of MBOLD Coalition,” says JoAnne Berkenkamp, MBOLD managing director. 

Today, only about 5% of flexible film is recycled in the U.S. And most of that limited capability is on the East and West Coast and in the southern region. In the Midwest, when these materials are recycled, they are typically shipped 700 miles or further, Berkenkamp says. The long haul ratchets up transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

But one feature that the region, Minnesota specifically, has going for it, is its corporate ecosystem. There’s a high concentration of national and international companies headquartered there, as well as large institutions who use high volumes of flexible film whether for shrink wrap, food- grade packaging, agriculture plastics such as hay bale wrap, or other applications.

MBOLD’s aim is to provide stakeholders a means to get these materials back in the form of a new product that meets their specs, keeping film recycled locally and in use.

But to catalyze a circular economy, besides identifying end users, key components are collections, recycling, and manufacturing of processed postconsumer resin (PCR) into new products.

Enter two MBOLD value chain partners. One is Wisconsin-based Charter Next Generation (CNG), one of the largest North American manufacturers of films for multiple applications. The other is film recycler Myplas, who came from its South African base to set up shop in Minnesota. CNG will source and produce products from PCR that Myplas will process into pellets.

 

CNG, along with MBOLD members Schwan’s Company, General Mills, Target, and EcoLab, invested $9.2 million toward what will be a $24.2 million Myplas film recycling plant to launch in 2023, located 25 miles from Minneapolis.

 

“The secret sauce for us is bringing together Myplas on the recycling side, and Charter Next on the film manufacturing side. That relationship is so valuable because it sets the stage for close collaboration to develop innovative film applications for the PCR.

Having organizations’ CEO leadership at the table [MBOLD members] to drive this initiative is as important. We all understood the win-win nature of collaboration,” Berkenkamp says.

For CNG, the initiative presents an opportunity to collaborate with more perspective film buyers, starting with MBOLD members. For Myplas, supporting the initiative is an opportunity to access a steady stream of resin and a reliable offtake partner with a robust customer base.

The time is ripe to really hone in on increasing recycling capacity, Berkenkamp says, as there is an expanding gap between supply and demand of recycled LDPE resin, and not just in the Midwest.

Supply will likely be outstripped many times over in years ahead as corporations who committed to expand use of this material seek out more of it. The United States does not currently have capacity to meet that demand.

The new Myplas USA, 170,000-square-foot plant will, at full capacity, be able to process nearly 90 million pounds of flexible packaging and film annually.

A big focus will be on expanding availability of recycled food-grade resin to make new food packaging, which Berkenkamp calls the holy grail. Access to this material can be limited.

“We did a survey with our members and found there’s pervasive use of pallet wrap and shrink wrap. But many of them produce packaged foods and also need food-grade material. So, we think it’s important to both create solutions for flexible materials and to support expanded capacity to produce food-grade postconsumer resin,” she says.

Apurva Shah​​, director of Strategic Partnerships for Charter Next Generation says, based on the demand trends he sees, the company would be able to take all of Myplas’ output.

Today, CNG can incorporate up to 60% PCR content in its film applications. But the major film manufacturer has been challenged in securing sufficient high-quality material, especially that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. 

“Our investment in MyPlas USA enables us to further secure additional supply so we can continue to be a partner of choice for brands to meet their sustainable packaging objectives,” Shah says.

While brands say they want to improve their sustainability efforts, he has observed their reluctance to use PCR unless there are negligible trade-offs in performance, and they are guaranteed a secure supply.

“Through investments like MyPlas and extensive work CNG is conducting to understand the performance and quality of various PCRs in film form, we aspire to lead this transition to using more recycled plastics in packaging,” he says.

The company’s vision is to begin by working closely with MBOLD and to eventually be able to replicate the model in other regions across North America.

Myplas began focusing on expanding internationally when China implemented its National Sword Policy. The film recycler saw opportunity to work with materials that China now shunned. Minnesota was a sweet spot, says Andrew Pieterse, CEO of Myplas USA, because of the lack of specialty film processing capacity infrastructure there.

The company will make pellets from recycled resin for multiple applications.

“We will work with [CNG and MBOLD] to change the current linear model to a circular model, and that’s what makes this collaboration special. We are facilitating the creation of a flexible film circular economy.

We are starting in Minnesota. But we hope that what we do here, which is create a real, working circular economy, gets replicated. Now our focus is Minnesota. But I see us expanding into more of the Midwest quickly,” Pieterse says.

Says Berkenkamp: “When you look at the need to increase recycling opportunities for 12 to 15 billion pounds of flexible film used in this country, it’s clear we need existing recyclers to grow, and we need new entrants in the market to start chipping away at the 95% that is not currently recycled. MBOLD’s circular economy initiative is showing how we can tackle that challenge through collaboration across the flexible film value chain.”

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