February 27, 2019 Sustainability No Comments

In 2018, our blog post “Circular Economy: Re Options” briefly outlined the various options available to the consumer at the end of a products life:   Reduce,  Reuse, Repair, Remanufacture and Recycle.   The focus of the blog was on recycling plastic bags which is the product we make.  The blog added the “Request” “Re” at the end.  When consumers, manufacturers and brands request recycled content  materials, it drives demand for the entire recycling industry.  The subject of this blog is to provide further information on the economics of recycling flexible packaging as well as some updates occurring to build out the flexible packaging recycling infrastructure.   

Is recycling flexible packaging a better environmental choice than virgin materials?  Recyclers have believed for a long time the environmental benefits of using recovered plastics due to energy savings and lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to virgin resins.  The Association of Plastics Recyclers newly published research (Plastics News Feb 4 2019) shows energy consumption and gas emissions for recycled plastics are just a fraction of the outputs for virgin production.  Also, in the recent Sustainable Packaging Coalition report (Design for Recycling Feb 2019), the article states “using 30% recycled content in PE films has been estimated to reduce energy consumption by a quarter and reduce green-house emissions by over a third during manufacturing”.  This type of data helps push the message that recycling of plastics is a viable sustainable strategy.

Is there potential value to collecting flexible packaging?  The Northeast Recycling Council Nov 2018 webinar (recycle.com/nerc-webinar-mrf-pilot/) sites significant sustainable benefits for plastics—food waste reduction, protects products during shipment, consumer savings, lightweight in transport and a   low carbon profile.   The webinar relays 12 billion pounds of post-consumer flexible packaging is generated each year.  This amount of recycled material offers a potentially valuable and relatively untapped source of post-consumer recycled resins for manufacturing applications.      

Why is recycling of flexible packaging not already in place?  According to the webinar, flexible packaging has been viewed in the recycling industry as a problem for many years.   The traditional equipment used to sort and process single stream waste programs are not fully capable of segregating flexible packaging.  The ill-effects of plastic within the recycler’s processes have been largely prohibitive to processing flexible materials.   The high cost to upgrade sorting and processing equipment to handle flexible packaging with no assurances of selling the material once sorted dampened any incentive for recyclers to process flexible plastics.  The webinar further relays the waste streams have changed in the last 10 years.  Flexible packaging waste has increased 5% in volume.  Running 2018 waste streams on 2005 equipment is a real challenge. 

Why is recycling of flexible packaging now getting closer to potentially take place?   A few factors have led to increased interest in recycling of flexible packing within facilities. 

  1. Technology advances have showed that flexible packaging can be sorted and processed from single stream recycling streams.  Optical sorters, air jets and hoods, disc screens and other upgrades can know handle flexible materials much better than in the past.    The new technology offers purer bales of recycled materials segregated by type. 
  2. Demand for recycled materials has a stronger potential to increase.  The public recognition of ocean plastics and fall-out of the China ban on taking recyclables has pushed this issue to the forefront.  With major brands increasingly on board, the demand for recycled flexible packaging will likely increase giving recyclers/processors a place to sell the flexible packaging bales.
  3. A pilot program is taking place in 2019 in PA with a Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) firm.  The NERC is partnering with JP Mascaro and Sons to test a positive sort on a large scale for flexible packaging material mix capture from curbside single stream to recycled content product bale for end use markets.   Preliminary information leading to the pilot has been very positive.    If results are good, scaling this concept to other processors/recyclers is the goal. 

Why is curbside recycling program in the pilot?   According to the webinar, 94% of Americans support recycling.  74% of those people think recycling should be made a priority.  Curbsideis simple, already in place in many locations and maximizes the recycling of all items. The SPC article relays the current main means of recycling plastic today is thru in-store drop-off systems.  The drop-off system only nets 7% of retail bags and 3% of PE films.  Plastic bag recycling thru a curb-side pick-up system is needed to maximize material return.

What about LDPE plastic specifically?   Incorporating recycled content into PE films can be challenging from processing, performance and appearance.  Presently, post-consumer recycled content is mostly found in white or gray materials with limitations to 20-30% recycled content.  Percentages higher than 30% and/or attempts to make clear post-consumer recycled content are not widely available in the market.  As technology in single stream recycling sorting and processing improves, the PCR content percentages will increase and the availability of clearer materials will likely become more prevalent.

How can people help in this movement?     Demand for recycled content material is very important.   According to the SPC article prior to 2018, 52% of collected packaging materials were shipped to China.  China is no longer taking material.  For this reason, creating a stronger “pull” demand for plastic material is critical to success. Consumers and brand owners requesting recycled material and recycling labeling is needed to support the circular system.

What is Clear View Bag doing to help?    As a converter, we do not ultimately decide what materials our clients use in their packaging.  Our hope is to work with our clients to lead them to the package design that supports their brand and simultaneously their sustainable goals.    To help improve client options,we are now stocking both clear (post-industrial) and white (post-consumer) recycled content materials.   We are continuously searching for the highest recycled content materials without loss in performance or diminished appearance or higher cost.   We are also a member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition providing access to the How2Recycle© labeling system.  Providing more material choices and print choices is our goal.    

With better technology integrated into recycling plants, with demand for recycled content materials increasing and with knowing there is value in recycling flexible packaging, curbside service for recycling your plastics may come soon to your locality.

Thanks for reading!                                 

Trent Romer

Sources:

Magazine Recycling Today “MRFF: Innovation, recycling, and flexible plastic packaging.”

Plastics News Feb 2019 “APR releases hard data on energy savings from recycling”

Sustainable Packaging Coalition Feb 2019 “Design for Recycled Content Guide”

The Northeast Recycling Council Nov 2018 webinar (recycle.com/nerc-webinar-mrf-pilot/)

Written by David Pugliese