Report: Automated sorting equipment can recover flexible packaging

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Washington — New research shows that flexible packaging can be easily recovered for recycling in single-stream facilities when automated sorting systems are properly tweaked and optimized.

The first phase of the research, sponsored by the Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) collaborative, aimed to use common sorting components already in materials recycling facilities to better separate flexible plastic packaging and paper fiber — an ongoing and serious frustration for recyclers.

Baseline testing by MRFF showed that 88 percent of all flexible packaging tested will sort with paper fiber. But the first phase of the group’s multi-year research showed product purity for flexible plastic packaging improved from 28 percent to 46 percent when screens and optical scanners were added to the line.

“The increased capture to the target product meant less flexible plastic packaging remaining in paper products, demonstrating the potential to reduce contamination of fiber bales if flexible plastic packaging is accepted in MRFs,” according to the report, titled Flexible Packaging Sortation at Materials Recovery Facilities.

In the final round of testing the total amount of flexible plastic packaging present in the fiber was reduced from 6.6 percent to 2 percent, by weight, in one pass by the optical sorter, the report said. Subsequent passes and targeted adjustment of equipment further reduced the amount of plastic mixed with paper fiber.

A 2 percent inclusion meets the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industry’s threshold for non-paper plastics material in the standard Grade 56 and Grade 58 residential paper grades coming from a MRF.

“With the completion of this research we are closer to our vision of being able to recycle all packaging,” said Jeff Wooster, global sustainability leader at Dow Chemical Co.

"The results show us that with the proper equipment design flexible packaging can be separated at the MRF. Consumers want to recycle all their packaging and this project is developing solutions that will eventually make that a reality. The research has shown that it is possible to both capture a flexible plastic packaging stream and improve the quality of the paper stream. This is an important step in developing a more circular economy for flexible packaging.”

Three North American facilities participated in the initial research: IMS Recycling in San Diego; Emterra Environmental in Surrey, British Columbia; and Emterra Environmental in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Subsequent research will focus on further refinements to sorting technology, economic feasibility, assessing end-use markets for the material and developing a recovery facility demonstration project, MRFF said.

Sponsors for the MRRF research project include Dow Chemical Co. PepsiCo Inc., Procter & Gamble Co., Sealed Air Corp., Nestle SA and S.C. Johnson and Son Inc. Trade groups backing the project include the Association of Plastic Recyclers, the Flexible Packaging Association and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.

The collective also added three new members in September: Target Corp., LyondellBasell Industries and baby food company Plum Organics.

Earlier this month, Dow also committed $2.8 million over the next two years to drive solutions that address global marine debris and litter. Half of the money will go toward other collaborative projects like the Ocean Conservancy’s research and waste management pilot programs and the other half will support the ongoing research of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s efforts to develop new technologies to create a more circular economy while advancing opportunities to turn waste into a valuable end-state materials.