Flexible films are the most prevalent plastic packaging material in the U.S.— double that of the widely used resin, polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—over 12 billion pounds of film flow into the market a year. But only one to five percent is recycled, and it’s commonly shipped long distances for conversion due to lacking processing infrastructure and local end markets. Some plastics and recycling industry stakeholders are trying to figure out how to tackle what’s increasingly recognized as a waste and supply chain conundrum.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

July 10, 2023

6 Min Read
plastic packaging
Chris Dukes / Alamy Stock Photo

Flexible films are the most prevalent plastic packaging material in the U.S.— double that of the widely used resin, polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—over 12 billion pounds of film flow into the market a year. But only one to five percent is recycled, and it’s commonly shipped long distances for conversion due to lacking processing infrastructure and local end markets.

Some plastics and recycling industry stakeholders are trying to figure out how to tackle what’s increasingly recognized as a waste and supply chain conundrum. One such project involves consulting firm Resource Recycling Systems (RRS); a group of brands (P&G, Nestle Purina, PepsiCo to name a few); and a Berks County, Pennsylvania materials recovery facility (MRF). With other partners, they are focusing on large single-stream MRFs as a part of the answer, if they can bale film at scale, to be made into marketable recycled content products.

These partners’ initiative involves a pilot that has since evolved into a commercial project. But first came a lot of preliminary research looking into the inner workings of large automated MRFs across North America. The goal was to figure out what these hubs would need to be able to work with film, then finetune a scalable design that could be implemented at similar high-capacity MRFs that act as hubs for processing, says Susan Graff, vice president of Global Corporate Sustainability for RRS.

J.P. Mascaro & Sons who hosted the pilot has baled 2.7 million pounds since early 2020, all sold or ready for sale. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to how much this lightweight but voluminous material floats around. But for one operation, it’s a start, with most of what it captures going into roof coverboard to replace gypsum. The roofing industry says it wants a lot more of it, finding it performs well, particularly in regions with intense weather events.

There’s been an active search for more end markets and to get bales to more film users to test to see if it can meet their varied specs.

Along the way, RRS, who conducted the research and project partners, made an unanticipated revelation they think will open up more applications, and, most importantly, more circular applications.

“Companies are proving you can make film from the flexible bales that J.P Mascaro & Sons makes. We honestly did not expect that it would be possible to process it back into film and were pleasantly surprised,” says Graff, explaining that even when it’s technically possible, plastic requires a lot of processing. Turning a water bottle back into another water bottle can take up to six steps. That hasn’t turned out to be the case with film.

The early work began with a focus on sortation to come up with an equipment design to separate flexible film from the other collected recyclables.  RRS designed the system, and Van Dyk Recycling Solutions built it, integrating multiple equipment pieces.

Due to its two-dimensional shape, flexible film tends to flow with paper, making paper lines an efficient, scalable way to capture it. Three sorters run in parallel on paper lines, moving the material to an optical sorter that separates film from paper. All other materials (3D objects like cans, jugs, and bottles) make their way to a container line.

Graff sees potential for the technology to turn a persistent headache into opportunity. Film is notorious for getting stuck in MRF equipment, causing shutdowns, among issues.

“This material is coming whether MRFs invite it or not, unfortunately. But now they can find benefits. Paper bales are cleaner and the MRF gets a new bale of another material they can sell,” she says.

One barrier yet to push past is a lack of curbside pickup programs. And this is no different in J.P. Mascaro & Sons’ service area; just one-third of households there have lidded carts.

“Until we get more carts out there it will be very hard to scale this kind of equipment design. It’s not happening quick enough,” Graff says.

J.P. Mascaro & Sons, owners of TotalRecycle, the hosting MRF, co-invested about $1 million in the project, said to be the first in the country to accept flexible plastic packaging with other residential curbside recyclables.

Today, nearly 60,000 households in ten Pennsylvania communities participate in the program, recycling film packaging along with other recyclables.

Having a way to recycle this material is saving in labor to clean the fiber grades of film (all done by hand before the upgrade), as well as reduce costs to landfill residue, says Jeff Furmanchin, general manager, TotalRecycle.

But he hopes to do more than cut costs. The company is working with several end markets, including those making new film from recycled film, and it’s offering bales for testing hoping to form long-term supply relationships.

 

“These markets need quality material and predictable quantity to be successful,” he says.

But, like Graff, he points to another essential puzzle piece for offtake agreements to work.

“Pennsylvania communities need more lidded carts so we can collect more supply. We invite communities that presently have recycling carts in place to add flexible film in their programs,” he says.

With more collection capacity, TotalRecycle believes it can auto sort 6.2 million pounds per year of film into a commodity bale.

Long-term feedstock supply agreements are imperative for successful programs, Graff confers.  

“It’s not just coming in and testing and coming back, buying a truck load here and there. It’s commitments to purchase this bale over several years at this quality and quantity specification,” she says, adding that having steady offtakers gives recyclers incentive to push communities to work with them to bring in more wasted film.

A few other multistakeholder initiatives are focusing on postconsumer film collections. South African-based Myplas states on its website that it will launch a plant in Minnesota in the summer of 2023 that will recycle nearly 90 million pounds of low- and high-density polyethylene packaging and film a year. It’s working in partnership with MBOLD, a coalition of major brands and others along the supply chain.

Further north, plastics and plastics recycling industry representatives have formed PRFLEX to try and increase collection and recycling rates of post-consumer flexible film in Canada.

Still, film has long been seen as a pain point for MRFs. Graff has this message for operators who struggle with it day in and out:

“Ask your customers, are there end markets you could serve with this new bale?  Film is coming to you anyway; would you rather make money by making it into a bale, or landfill it?

“If you can develop long-term supply agreements with an end market, divert from landfill, and allow the largest form of packaging to get recycled, to me that’s a win-win.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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