Researchers see a pathway that could significantly increase the amount of flexible plastic packaging being recycled in the United State, and with the help of one recycler in Pennsylvania, the approach could prove feasible by the end of this year.
What has now become a years-long effort to determine whether flexible packaging can be successfully processed at material recovery facilities (MRF) is entering an important phase in 2019.
Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF), a research project aiming to tackle the vexing problem that plastic flexible packaging presents to traditional MRFs is entering some heavy-duty, real-world testing.
J.P. Mascaro & Sons, a solid waste and recycling company in Pennsylvania, is testing additional equipment this year that would allow its MRF in Birdsboro, near Reading, to readily accept flexible packaging.
The idea is to use an additional four optical sorters as well as more mechanical equipment to allow the MRF to successfully separate the material from other recyclables such as paper and metal.
Flexible packaging, and bags in particular, have long been a nemesis for many MRFs around the country as those facilities typically were not originally designed to handle that type of material. The plastic can wrap itself around rotating sorting equipment as well as find its way into recycled paper bales as contamination.
Most communities, as a result, do not accept flexible plastic packaging in their recycling. But the material does continue to seep into so-called single-stream recycling collection programs that have become commonplace.
MRFF, the program aimed at finding a solution, estimates it will cost $3 million to $5 million to retrofit the recycling centers, to augment existing equipment to handle flexibles.
Susan Graff is a principal at Resource Recycling Systems, a consultancy that has been shepherding the MRFF project through its phases.
The idea is initially to replicate real-world conditions as at Mascaro's recycling facility through the controlled introduction of flexible plastics.
"The MRF owner is in the process of accepting the equipment. When that's completed, we'll be adding material to mimic the 3 percent [of flexible plastic] that we expect to get," Graff said. "Before we turn it on in the communities, we want to give the MRF the test of processing at that level."
"This is a proof of concept pilot," she said.
If that testing goes well, the project will allow Mascaro customers to start including flexible plastics in their curbside collection containers.
There was extensive debate, years ago, in the solid waste and recycling collection end of the business about whether single-stream or dual stream recycling was more advantageous. Single-stream, because of the economics of not having to sort materials at the curb, ultimately won out.
What wasn't anticipated at that time was the impact that increasing consumer recycling ease would have on the addition of flexible plastic packaging into the recycling stream.
While collection programs differ significantly from location to location, most customers have long been able to put in their recycled PET and high density polyethylene containers into curbside mix. Some programs accept a wider range of plastics. This inconsistency from program to program can lead to confusion and contamination.
Some MRFs use vacuum systems to suck out as much flexible plastic packaging at the as possible at the onset before it has a chance to create problems. Employees standing along the line also pick out problematic materials before they reach equipment.
But it is not uncommon for MRF operators to have to shut down their lines completely several times each day to allow workers to go into the machinery and cut out flexible plastics have wound themselves around sortation equipment.
MRFF believes there are about 100 large locations that would be well served to install this type of additional equipment.
"We've looked at MRFs across the U.S. For large MRFs, it's going to cost $3 million to $5 million to be able to do this kind of processing," Graff said.
That comes out to an investment of about $2 per ton at the large MRFs, which makes such an investment feasible, Graff said.
Work at the Pennsylvania facility is being funded by a grant through MRFF as well as money from the company itself. "They see this as a growth opportunity for them," she said.
An official with Mascaro could not be reached in time for comment in this story, but has previously issued a statement.
"We are confident that the pilot will be successful and will generate industry data to show FPP generators, municipalities and the recycling industry that FPP can be efficiently and economically recycled and marketed instead of being landfills," said Joseph P. Mascaro, director of sustainability, in a statement.
T.J. Stinson is recycling coordinator at J.P. Mascaro.
"What we're trying to do is get all of the packaging material that currently goes into the landfill, get it into our building, accumulate it and find a new market that we can put it back to use, give it a second life," he told Philadelphia radio station WHYY.
For communities with best practices and scalable systems, Graff said, "loose automated collection of the material is the way to go."
"If we're looking at what the promise of this pilot is, it's to be able to scale this pretty easily," she said, to include other large MRF locations around the country.