Although circularity options are limited, flexible packaging is one of the most environmentally sustainable packaging types from numerous standpoints, including water and energy consumption, product-to-package ratio, transportation efficiency, food waste, and greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Yet, no single solution currently can be applied when it comes to the best way to collect, sort, and process flexible packaging waste.
Viability is influenced by several factors: existing equipment and infrastructure, material collection methods and rates, volume and mix, and demand for the recovered material. Single-material flexible packaging, which is approximately half of the flexible packaging waste generated, can be mechanically recycled through store drop-off programs. However, participation is low. The other half can be used to generate new feedstock, whether through upgraded mechanical processes, pyrolysis, gasification, or other advanced recycling infrastructure, but given the lack of current infrastructure for these technologies in the U.S., full circularity cannot be realized.
Developing end-of-life solutions for flexible packaging is a work in progress, and the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) is partnering with manufacturers, recyclers, retailers, waste management companies, brand owners, and other organizations to continue making strides toward total packaging recovery. Some examples include The Recycling Partnership (TRP), the Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) project, the Hefty® EnergyBag® Program, and the University of Florida’s Consortium for Waste Circularity project. All of these programs seek to increase the collection and recycling of flexible packaging and increase the recycled content of new products that will not only create markets for the products but will serve as a policy driver for the creation of a new collection, sortation, and processing infrastructure for the valuable materials that make up flexible packaging.
The following is a brief overview of some of FPA’s partnerships and flexible packaging recyclers.
The Recycling Partnership’s Film & Flexibles Coalition
FPA is a partner with the TRP’s Film & Flexibles Coalition, which is helping to advance the recycling of film and flexibles through a three-part plan that includes the gathering of data on the impacts of available collection methods, assessing the most promising technological interventions and piloting new interventions, and implementing national interventions to drive the recycling of films and flexibles. The goal is to make curbside recycling of films available nationwide.
Materials Recovery for the Future Project
FPA is an active partner in this industry-sponsored multi-year, multimillion-dollar research project. The focus of the program is to establish that flexible packaging that is not mechanically recyclable today can be collected in a single stream system and auto sorted at materials recovery facilities (MRFs). The central goal of the project is to find the most cost-effective pathway to create a flexible packaging commodity bale for reprocessing or conversion-to-fuel and other market commodities. The MRFF project’s vision is: “Flexible Packaging is recycled curbside, and the recovery community captures value from it.”
Hefty® EnergyBag® Program
The Hefty® EnergyBag® Program began in 2016 as an industry collaboration of which FPA was a founding member. The program offers a responsible end-of-life solution for hard-to-recycle post-consumer plastics waste. It is a five-step process:
- Participants purchase Hefty® EnergyBags.
- Consumers collect the hard-to-recycle plastics into specially designated orange bags.
- Consumers then place full bags into the curbside cart with other recyclables.
- The hauler collects and delivers the bags to an MRF as a part of normal service and schedule.
- The bags are sorted at the MRF and sent to a facility for use as a valued resource. This includes resources such as energy feedstock, replacing coal in cement kilns, chemical recycling into diesel fuel and wax, and recycling for pallets and building materials.
University of Florida’s Consortium for Waste Circularity Project
FPA is a founding member of the Consortium for Waste Circularity project, which is managed by the University of Florida. Regenerative gasification makes it capable of accepting virtually everything within municipal solid waste (MSW) and converting it to synthesis gas (syngas). While syngas itself is not easily transported, it can be converted to methanol (also known as eco-methanol) and back into new products, plastics, and packaging. This project offers a great promise to achieve circular economy sustainability goals for flexible packaging.
While there are several commercially available options currently for robust gasification, many opportunities exist for innovation, iteration, and optimization for handling the MSW. Therefore, the University of Florida developed lines of research related to reducing the complexity and cost of the gasification technology, as well as the conversion of syngas to methanol.
Packaging industry stakeholders have been successfully running trials through the University of Florida for several months, and the testing program is being expanded to all packaging industry stakeholders. To date, multi-layer materials, metalized films, barrier films containing PVDC, cross-linked photopolymer flexographic plates, and more are successfully converted to syngas.
The How2Recycle’s store drop-off label applies to certain types of flexible polyethylene, or PE, film packaging, such as bags, wraps, and pouches. Through store drop-off recycling, consumers can take items featuring the label—like the wrap around paper towels, produce bags, or certain stand-up pouches—to their local participating retail location to recycle along with any plastic shopping bags. The material collected through the store drop-off program is recycled into a variety of end applications, the most dominant being composite lumber and plastic shopping bags.
As one of the largest recyclers of plastic in North America, Trex Company reclaims and repurposes more than 500 million pounds of plastic film and reclaimed wood annually through several commercial partnerships and community programs. Among its largest sources are grocery stores and other retailers who partner with Trex to responsibly dispose of plastic shopping bags and polyethylene film used to wrap products and pallets.
FPA and its members are particularly interested in solving the plastics pollution issue, increasing the recycling of solid waste from packaging, and creating a working, circular economy. A suite of options is needed to address the lack of infrastructure for non-readily recyclable packaging materials, and promotion and support of market development for recycled products is an important lever to build that infrastructure. FPA will continue to forge partnerships to help move the industry forward with flexible packaging aligned to a circular economy framework.
Dani Diehlmann is FPA vice president, communications.