A pilot project to determine whether MRF equipment upgrades affect flexible plastic packaging (FPP) separation from curbside material streams resulted in positive outcomes and areas for improvement that both hold implications for the recycling industry’s future. While the pilot met some key contamination reduction goals, the results also show much more work is necessary to grow FPP demand and end markets.
FPP currently is the most popular and fastest-growing plastic packaging category, with an estimated 12 billion pounds consumed annually in the United States, so devising a viable recovery system could have substantial implications for removing the material from the waste stream. But traditional sorting systems haven’t proven successful at scale yet, in part because flexible plastic packaging is a challenging material to capture. It is difficult for equipment to grab and often ends up in paper bales as a contaminant due its light weight.
Resource Recycling Systems recently released a pilot results report for the Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) initiative, an American Chemistry Council (ACC) project. Findings were based on a year-long pilot program at a J.P. Mascaro and Sons facility in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania that ended in February. The goal was to demonstrate whether loose FPP collected curbside in single-stream recycling programs could be sorted at a MRF to create commodity bales that could be used as feedstock for new products with recycled content.
Pilot setup and results
Mascaro purchased the equipment upgrades with a grant from the MRFF sponsors. The MRF already had a 35-ton-per-hour system with anti-wrap screens, and additional upgrades were installed. They included three optical sorters to remove flexible packaging from fiber lines and a fourth to remove fiber from the resulting FPP stream. A flex/rigid separator at the end of the line removed other 3D materials from the stream. The resulting FPP bales are a new commodity dubbed “rFlex”.
The pilot achieved four of the five main performance goals established at its outset.
- The MRF had a 74% FPP capture rate, which falls short of the 90% goal.
- Paper in the FPP product was 11-14%, meeting the less-than-15% goal.
- The amount of FPP ending up with fiber products dropped from 1.4% to 0.3% in newsprint and from 1.6% to 0.5% in mixed paper, meeting a general goal to reduce FPP in the fiber stream.
- The need for fiber quality control staff was reduced 38%, meeting the minimum 25% goal.
- The FPP recovery system was successfully integrated with the existing MRF control system.
The pilot proved FPP can be sorted from single-stream materials with the right equipment, according to the report. That in itself is considered a success because the material causes problems at MRFs with traditional equipment. The other notable boon, in the opinion of multiple sources, is a cleaner fiber line.
“The flexible plastics [previously] were a really big problem. They got into our equipment and caused a lot of downtime,” Joseph Mascaro Sr., director of recycling and sustainability at J.P. Mascaro and Sons, told Waste Dive. Using optical sorters on the paper line instead of air transfer machinery “makes a lot of sense to me as an operator” because it produces a cleaner paper line and simultaneously recovers numerous plastic grades, Mascaro said.
MRFF partners touted the pilot as successful for meeting four of the five performance goals and for having positive implications for the future.
“By collecting this material at Mascaro’s MRF, we created a new commodity… That’s a really big thing,” said Sarah Lindsay, manager of public outreach for ACC’s Plastics Division. “There are companies that are looking into this [material] and testing if it works in their processes... I think that's a really positive thing with implications for the future — being able to use this new recycled commodity in end markets and end products.”
But removing an item from the recycling stream isn’t enough, say subject matter experts. The new commodity must also have proven value to achieve long-term return on investment. Currently, FPP is not a commodity with notable market value.
“I'm a fan of this project and think it's good someone decided to ask the bold question of what it takes to get films recycled,” said Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “It's clear they're making progress… But there’s still a way to go, and they acknowledge that, which I appreciate. I’m pleased they've been staying the course and didn't rush to say the problem is solved.”
Numerous partners must collaborate on end market development to boost demand and make the rFlex prospect viable in real-world conditions, sources say.
"The [MRFF] project proved that film and flexibles can be collected loose at the curb and sorted in a MRF, something that many would have thought impossible just five years ago," said Trina Matta, circular ventures director at The Recycling Partnership. "Our Film and Flexibles Coalition looks forward to continuing to study the best ways to collect and sort for these materials."
Companies are currently testing the rFlex in their processes to determine if it works as a feedstock, according to ACC. The report identifies multiple end market opportunities including plastic lumber, rail ties, plastic gravel, crates, pallets and plastic pellets. Chemical recycling is another opportunity that “we think has a lot of potential to scale,” said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for ACC’s Plastics Division.
The challenge is to scale those opportunities to create a bona fide FPP marketplace and ensure long-term market sustainability. Creating a viable marketplace is “a big, big challenge. You have to find somebody who wants to buy this material, will theoretically pay for it and then do something environmentally beneficial with it,” Gendell said.
Despite the challenges with establishing end market opportunities, the possibility is still seen as a significant incentive for MRFs to add equipment upgrades.
“The fact that there's an end to the product is important. There are more wins than just getting this product out of the trash,” Mascaro said.
Collection volumes are another factor to consider. Without widespread collection, a commodity price will be higher and less desirable to manufacturers.
“Collection is part of driving down the price of recycled material. This program shows that a new material stream can increase the supply of recycled material to help address that supply side of the supply and demand equation, and that will affect price," Christman said.
Despite this optimism, timing might be a short-term barrier to gaining traction on developing FPP markets. The global pandemic is affecting supply and demand dynamics and depressing recycled resin pricing. Resulting financial hardships may make it difficult for many MRFs to justify equipment upgrades.
“The financial portion will be interesting, especially in our current landscape where we expect a lot of recycling budgets to get cut and worry there will be some scaling back of the robustness of recycling programs,” Gendell said. “The idea of adding a new material that doesn't add a lot of market value will be tough.” That’s a factor for all materials, not just rFlex, he added.
However, the market is cyclical and will rebound, in Christman's view. Involving multiple stakeholders, such as plastic resin producers, is key to achieving the necessary scale, he said. While the intent of the initial pilot was to prove FPP separation is feasible with the right equipment, the next step is to help scale FPP collection and sortation across the country.
“Scale is an important solution to challenges in terms of price and cost in the recycled materials market,” Christman said. “When you have scale, it will provide higher supply. And when you have higher supply, then that reduces costs.”
Getting stakeholders — specifically MRFs, packaging manufacturers, reprocessers and brands — on board and achieving scale is a long game that likely will take years to properly establish, sources say. However, the surge in brand sustainability commitments over the past year is considered a positive indicator of momentum.
J.P. Mascaro and Sons intends to continue sorting the flexible packaging material with its equipment upgrades. This week, the company is adding additional equipment at the pilot MRF to further improve the recovery rates for both fiber and FPP.
“If I can sort it, I will sort it. If I have an avenue to sell it, then absolutely I’m going to sell it,” said Mascaro. “I think this shows that single-use plastics certainly still have a place. I think everybody needs to add this equipment to their operation because it’s even cleaning up the fiber. It makes sense.”
Continuing to work on solutions is considered important by the MRFF project's backers because flexible packaging use is only expected to grow. Christman notes the mixture of environmental and economic benefits, because recycling other packaging materials, such as steel, can potentially create more greenhouse gas emissions compared to recycling FPP.
“That's one reason these flexible materials are growing," Christman said. "Now the goal is to collect them, give them a new life by recycling them and create that circular economy."