A pilot project to recycle flexible plastic packaging says it's finding success proving that bags and other thin-film materials that bedevil curbside programs can find a way to be reused, but it's also noting major economic hurdles like an "anemic" market to overcome.
The plastics industry-funded Materials Recovery for the Future consortium released a report June 16 on its project upgrading a Pennsylvania recycling sorting facility to handle flexible plastic packaging like shopping bags, chip and snack packaging and the increasingly popular stand-up pouches.
The report said the trial project at a materials recovery facility in Birdsboro, Pa., was a success and can be a replicable model for other communities, allowing residents to put those hard-to-recycle materials directly into curbside recycling bins.
But the report from the MRFF consortium also noted that it will cost several million dollars per facility for new equipment and said more work is needed to support weak markets for the recycled plastic film material to achieve long-term success.
It said about 12 billion pounds of the flexible plastic packaging is consumed each year in the U.S. but only about 4 percent of single-resin flexible packaging formats are recycled.
Still, supporters said the initial results are positive.
Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director for Dow Inc.'s Packaging and Specialty Plastics business, said it was a "successful start."
"With [flexible packaging] consumption growing rapidly, it is critical that we have an innovative recycling solution to properly collect these materials," Wooster said. "It is our hope that this program will spark a new wave of innovative recycling solutions in both the U.S. and on a global scale."
The project spent several million dollars to upgrade the TotalRecycle Inc. materials recycling facility operated by J.P. Mascaro & Sons in Birdsboro, about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
It baled the film packaging it collected, which it called rFlex, and made attempts across more than a dozen industries to find economically viable markets for it.
Roofing materials are the highest volume and most immediate end market opportunity, the report said, along with uses such as pallets and railroad ties. It also explored markets like plastic lumber, plastic gravel and asphalt, pyrolysis for fuel products and various durable goods.
The project said it met four of its five goals within a year of installing the equipment and made solid progress toward the fifth goal: pulling 90 percent of the flexible materials from the stream of materials in the recycling site.
It said the most immediate benefit was getting higher-quality paper bales from the recycling facility, but advocates also said they see progress with the plastics.
"The strong performance results from the MRFF pilot project demonstrate that it is feasible to close the loop for plastic flexible film in the U.S., with substantial infrastructure investment and cross-sector collaboration," said Nicole Camilleri, technical packaging senior development specialist and sustainability lead at Nestle USA.
"At Nestle, we are working to deliver our 2025 goal to make 100 percent of our packaging recyclable or reusable," she said. "Bolstering infrastructure and increasing curbside access for plastic flexible film recycling in the U.S. are critical steps toward achieving that goal."