Pilot project seeks to bring multi-material pouches into recycling, reuse stream

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Jim Johnson Flexible Packaging Association President Marla Donahue with one of the purple bags intended for pouches and other items not typically recycled.

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — There’s the blue bag for traditional recyclables and the red bag for medical waste and the black bag for regular old trash.

Now comes the purple bag, officially known as the Energy Bag.

 And it’s aimed squarely at multi-material pouches and other plastics that typically aren’t recycled.

A pilot project just starting in Citrus Heights, Calif., will help determine if there can be viable diversion away from landfills for these pouches and other plastics by using the purple bag.

Pouches, thanks to their multiple layers of different plastics and even aluminum foil, are difficult to recycle.

Capturing these multi-material pouches for recycling, said Flexible Packaging Association President Marla Donahue, is “very challenging with today’s technology.”

“Because it’s such a small percentage of the waste stream, 1.6 percent, it is very difficult to get the attention of the waste management community. It’s just a little blip on their radar screen,” she said at the recent Global Pouch Forum in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The Energy Bag is out to change that through a program co-sponsored by Dow Chemical Co., trash hauler and recycler Republic Services Inc., Citrus Heights, and the Flexible Packaging Association.

A total of 27,000 households in Citrus Heights are being asked to separate their flexible packaging and hard-to-recycle plastics and place them in special purple bags distributed in the community. Those bags are to be tied and placed in with the regular recyclables to allow for easy removal once they hit Republic Services’ materials recovery facility.

“Plastics are a valuable resource and through Energy Recovery we can recover the embedded energy content. As the world’s largest provider of plastics to the packaging industry, we have a vital interest in making these materials beneficial throughout their life cycle,” said Jeff Wooster, global sustainability leader for Dow, in an email interview.

“There is no reason to continue to send plastics items that cannot be mechanically recycled to the landfill when we can recover them for energy,” he said.

The three-month pilot project, which runs through August, will see the specially captured plastics shipped off to Agilyx Corp. in Beaverton, Ore., where the material will be turned into synthetic fuel oil through a process called pyrolysis.

Multi-layer pouches gain plenty of attention for a lack of recycling, but the Energy Bag project also aims to divert items including candy wrappers, pet food bags, frozen food bags and the outer plastic wrapping for water bottle and soda packages. Items such as plastic dinnerware, plates and cups also are on the list of accepted items.

The purple Energy Bags will be collected biweekly and then sent in bulk to Agilyx.

“For us, the pilot is already a success. Collaboration is key to building a sustainable future and this is exactly what has happened here,” Wooster said in the email. “And this is just a starting point. We are learning valuable lessons with our partners that we will be able to apply in other communities.”

Jim Johnson Marla Donahue

Flexible, multi-layered pouches typically get thrown away because of their very nature and the advantages they have compared to other packaging.

Different layers of plastics and foil provide different types of protection — oxygen and moisture barriers, for instance. But those combinations also create recycling challenges.

“Each flexible package is a designer package which may have different material mixes,” Donahue explained. “And one of the big questions that some of the recycling community asks is why do we have to have these multi-material laminates?”

“Well, because they provide the best protection for certain products,” she said. “They extend the shelf life of all kinds of food products.”

And while the end-of-use package itself creates a disposal issue, the package during its useful life helps combat against the enormous problem of food waste, the trade group president explained.

The Flexible Packaging Association, for years, has been looking at what to do with multi-material laminates at the end of their use.

The group’s research, Donahue said, “has concluded that resource recovery as an end-of-life option is a good option for multi-material laminates. And as of today, pyrolysis appears to be the best form of resource recovery. I keep stressing today, because things change so quickly.”

The association is planning to produce a documentary on the pilot program as well as a “best practices report,” the association president said. ”Those will be used as learning tools for other communities and the waste management industry to set up similar programs.”

Just days after the launch of the program in Citrus Heights earlier this month, interest was strong from other communities, Donahue said.

“We have already had multiple cities in California contact us about helping them set up a similar program, so we then expect to expand the program,” she said.

Wooster, in the email interview said, “The possibilities are limitless. We can share the success of this pilot with other communities with the hope of changing the course of recycling and waste collection around the nation.”

He called the pilot program “a first step toward an important change in the way we handle waste. This pilot aims to prove that resource recovery of non-recycled plastics is a viable municipal process that can achieve many positive long-term environmental and economic results, including fewer tons of landfill trash, more local energy resources and less fossil energy dependence.”