A yearslong study, slowed by COVID-19, shows that material recovery facilities can effectively manage flexible plastic packaging given the right circumstances. And, as a side benefit, the equipment installed also helps improve paper fiber sortation because more plastic is segregated from that stream.
In 2017, the Materials Recovery for the Future project launched with the idea of examining the idea of running large amounts of flexible plastic packaging through an MRF sortation line in an attempt to recycle that material. Now come the final results.
Recycling of flexible film and packaging, despite its growing use, is significantly less than what takes place with rigid plastics. And most MRFs, typically run by trash collection companies or municipalities, do not have the equipment to effectively sort the material.
"I think this is a really important proof point for thinking about how do we actually advance MRF sorting to address the packaging that we use today, and not only use today, but it's growing in importance," said Anne Johnson, vice president of global corporate sustainability Resource Recycling Systems, a consultancy that oversaw the study.
Flexible plastic packaging is not only replacing glass and metals but also taking market share away from rigid plastics. "But we have been really slow in adapting our sorting systems to address these materials," Johnson said.
The pilot project, which took place at the TotalRecycle MRF in Berks County, Pa., operated by J.P. Mascaro & Sons, has diverted more than 2.7 million pounds of flexible plastic packaging, according to the new RRS report.
About 60,000 homes in Mascaro's service area in 10 communities were invited to put flexible plastics in their recycling carts to help feed material to the MRF. That's typically a big no-no in the world of single-stream recycling as plastic films contaminate other recyclables and can wrap around sortation equipment.
But optical sortation and air separation equipment installed at the TotalRecycle MRF was able to segregate flexibles that were ultimately recycled into new products, RRS reports. The facility also employed manual labor to segregate flexible plastics that found its way past the new equipment.
"Despite challenging conditions in both recycling infrastructure and domestic manufacturing over the last two-year period, the RRS team found positive environmental and economic returns associated with four different MRF-to-end-market recycling pathways," RRS said.
Those end markets include roof boards, which combine the flexible plastics with other materials to create compressed sheets used as underlayment in roofing systems. Film collected at the MRF also was chemically recycled, made into pellets, then blown into film and used to make pallets.
The project initially set out to prove plastic film could flow through an MRF successfully to create bales of products that could then be used to create new products. Researchers quickly realized their work also needed to identify some of those potential new products.
"I absolutely think [the project] met its goals. In fact, I think it exceeded them. From the outset, end markets were not really part of the calculus. It became pretty clear early on that we would have to do end-market work," Johnson said.
Technology to develop new flexible packaging and film has far outpaced work to recover those materials once they have been used. Johnson said that is a challenge.
"We have been really slow in adapting our sorting systems to address these materials. I don't think just saying we're not going to accept it, that's not advancing technology in a way we need to drive a circular economy. We have to figure out solutions. We know from a project like this it can be done. We need more work on refining the end-market solutions," she said.
Anecdotal feedback from MRF operators indicate they are willing to make investments to manage film if they can be shown a pathway to economic viability.
"I think this is a project that opens that door [and] provides some confidence that it can be done," Johnson said.
Long-term contracts with minimum pricing and a guarantee of being able to move the material will help expand film recycling, she said. "To get MRFs to commit to the total investment, they need that kind of assurance to make it worth it so they can understand what their total payback time would be."
RRS evaluated the technical and economic feasibility of sorting flexible plastic packaging curbside utilizing its financial model, which analyzed the potential benefits of collecting and sorting flexible plastic packaging in large, single-stream MRFs.
TotalRecycle pointed to the benefits of changing flexible plastics from a landfill cost to a potential profit center. A side benefit to the MRF is that less plastic is finding its way into the paper fiber sortation equipment, which reduces labor needed to clear those lines. Fiber bales also improved in quality with less plastic contamination, RRS said.