Recycling still a challenge for pouches

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Jim Johnson Croke

Miami — Plastic pouches continue to grow in popularity, but the persistent issue of recyclability remains attached to many of those flexible packages.

And a spokeswoman for one of the higher-profile efforts to promote recycling believes this is a core issue that needs to be taken seriously by the industry.

Sure, pouches are popular. And they are profitable. But they also are problematic, said Bridget Croke, who leads investor partnerships and communications at the Closed Loop Fund.

“Until you solve what the consumer can do with this material at the end of the day, you can’t talk to the consumer or anyone else about all these great environmental benefits,” Croke told the recent Global Pouch Forum in Miami. “This is critical from a consumer engagement standpoint.”

Pouches continue to grow in popularity, as evidenced by a record crowd of more than 600 people at the pouch show.

They stand up well to other packaging types in terms of weight and portability, for example. But the end-of-life story for many pouches, because they can contain multiple types of plastics and even a metal layer, can be a difficult sell. Many simply get thrown away because they cannot be easily recycled with current systems.

“This,” Croke said, “is a critical issue from a consumer engagement standpoint.”

So the Closed Loop Fund, which has gained traction in recent years for its efforts to lend money to municipalities and private businesses to promote recycling, is examining the issue of flexible packaging recycling.

The fund, which has created a $100 million pool of cash to loan at no or low interest, is working with consulting firm Reclay StewardEdge Inc. on the initiative.

“The project is still underway so we still don’t have all the answers to share with you on the solutions,” said Betsy Dorn, a consulting director for Reclay StewardEdge.

Challenges are plenty when it comes to recycling from multiple perspectives: the consumer, material recovery facilities that handle curbside collected recyclables, and plastic reclaimers that actually recycle the material, Dorn said.

“There are challenges. I’m not saying they’re insurmountable. But my job is to tell you about the challenges,” she said.

Here’s just a few: Consumers are challenged to identify different types of plastics, and this can lead to cross-contamination. Flexible packaging also can create a world of hurt for MRFs by clogging machinery and contaminating other material streams such as paper fiber. And for plastic reclaimers, it’s difficult to evaluate the content of a bale simply by looking at the material.

But even though plenty of challenges exist, Dorn said she still has hope. The consultant said she has attended the forum for three of the past four years, and has seen progress just in that time.

“We just have to put our focus on this problem to work to solve it. And I have confidence,” she said.