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We’re at the Tipping Point for Curbside Recycling of Flexible Packaging

Recent developments and activities point to the capability for more widespread collection of bags, pouches, and films at consumers’ curbs. Let’s get there.

Lisa McTigue Pierce

August 10, 2023

6 Min Read
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Willowpix / iStock via Getty Images Plus

Think about the reasons why flexible packaging isn’t collected today via curbside bins in the United States.

• Bags, pouches, and films are often multilayered/multi-material and can’t be separated for mechanical recycling.
• Material Recovery Facilities (aka MRFs) can’t automatically handle flexible packaging. The material jams their machinery and causes a lot of problems.
• The business case isn’t there yet because there isn’t a robust end market for the material once it’s been recycled.

But let me make a case for why we should push — and push hard — for flexible packaging to be collected at curbside.

 

Why advocate for curbside recycling of flexible packaging?

One reason to push for this now is that there’s more flexible packaging in general. Scan store shelves or look in your own garbage can and you’re sure to see flexible packaging in a higher percentage than before for the products you buy. That’s because, over the last decade, brand owners have switched from rigid packs to flexible at a remarkable rate. The reasons are varied:

• It could be to save packaging material weight for environmental reasons because flexible packaging is lighter-weight than a rigid container;
• It could be for economic reasons since a roll of film is often less expensive compared to the number of equivalent bottles;
• It could be to save raw material inventory space;
• It could be a better package format for the product or use-case (for example, more products are being shipped via small-parcel for ecommerce, and hermetic seals of flexible packs provide better leak-proof benefits vs rigid when package orientation can’t be controlled);
• It could be other reasons.

Plus recycling anything diverts that waste from landfills. Whether you believe in the climate crisis or not, surely you can see how practicing circularity is better for people, planet, profits, right?

 

Why is curbside recycling of flexible packaging possible today?

So, what has changed to bring us to this tipping point of curbside recycling for flexible packaging? A lot. Here are just a few highlights:

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  • Trials have shown success: Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) completed its Materials Recovery for the Future Project. The two-year project that investigated the viability of curbside recycling of flexible packaging determined that it is, indeed, “practical and economically feasible.” The Hefty ReNew program (formerly called the Hefty EnergyBag Program), an earlier and smaller trial, was also dubbed a success.

  • Regulatory urging: Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws for packaging are popping up in America, with more proposals in the works. In early July, the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) responded to the ABC News investigation, “Trashed: The Secret Life of Plastic Recycling.” In the press release, the FPA advocated for EPR laws (along with other things) to speed up wide-spread recycling of flexible packaging. According to the release, “A fully developed system would include curbside collection options for flexible plastics, removing the need for consumers to bring piles of plastic bags and films to store drop-off locations. … Once fully operational, a well-run EPR system would provide expanded recycling options and ultimately more material for manufacturers to make packaging from post-consumer recycled content.”One side thought … Are national recycling standards possible? Probable? Maybe. Maybe not. But some organizations support the Environmental Protection Agency’s Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution. I’d rather see voluntary movement but understand that mandates might be necessary.

  • New film technologies: Mono-material structures that still provide good barrier for foods are fact, not fiction, as proven at interpack this year. And, though already quite lightweight, flexible packaging is reducing plastic use itself (by 35%) and still staying strong and recyclable.

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  • New ideas for collection/sortation: How can we collect floppy films and bags when they can’t be handled automatically? Make them solid like the Obaggo disk (see photo above). Or work on automated systems for sortation, like the AMP Vortex artificial intelligence (AI)-powered automation system for plastic film removal and recovery.

  • New technologies for recycling: Advanced recycling, also known as chemical or molecular recycling, can accept and process mixed plastics, including flexibles. Eastman, Purecycle, ExxonMobil, LyondellBasell, and others are commercializing different technologies: conversion (which includes pyrolysis), depolymerization, and purification. Many in the plastics and waste industries see great growth opportunities for this newer recycling method.And have you heard of horizontal recycling for recycling printed biaxially-oriented polypropylene (BOPP) film back into new flexible packaging film? This joint pilot with Mitsui Chemicals, Mitsui Chemicals Tohcello, and Toppan was news to me.

  • Help is out there: The Recycling Partnership is happy to help, specifically for films and flexible packaging. And the How2Recycle label can easily tell consumers what to do with your flexible package.

 

Next steps to further curbside recycling of flexible packaging.

I don’t deny there are still challenges. Multilayer film structures, for one. Closure devices made from a different material, for another. Perhaps advanced recycling will be the ultimate solution; many are counting on that.

Technology aside, I think consumer education is key; but so is a concise and consistent message. And we don’t have either yet.

But so much activity is happening with flexible packaging these days that it’s hard to keep up with it. Packaging Digest helps you by consolidating critical news in our free Breaking News in Flexible Packaging stream.

A critical last question to ask, though, before we can close the loop on the business case of curbside collection of flexible packaging: Is there an adequate end market for the collected and recycled material?

You tell me. That’s in your hands. Let’s get there.

 

Lisa McTigue Pierce is executive editor of Packaging Digest. She’s been a packaging media journalist since 1982 and tracks emerging trends, new technologies, and best practices across a spectrum of markets for the publication’s global community. Reach her at [email protected] or 630-481-1422.

About the Author(s)

Lisa McTigue Pierce

Executive Editor, Packaging Digest

Lisa McTigue Pierce is Executive Editor of Packaging Digest. She’s been a packaging media journalist since 1982 and tracks emerging trends, new technologies, and best practices across a spectrum of markets for the publication’s global community. Reach her at [email protected] or 630-272-1774.

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