October 15, 2018
One of the hottest topics in recyclability right now is plastic film recovery. Popular now and poised to grow in the coming years, flexible plastic films are beloved by brands for their ability to efficiently transport products with minimal packaging waste, disliked by recyclers for their sorting difficulties at material recovery facilities (MRFs), and have left many scratching their heads about exactly where they fit into a sustainable packaging solution.
Naturally, the session on advancements in mechanical recycling of films at SPC Advance 2018 was much anticipated and well attended. Bringing together a panel of experts in film recovery from across the supply chain, the session provided attendees a look into the state of film recycling now, including its successes and the challenges it faces, as well as opportunities for the future.
Many companies are turning to plastic films to package their products because films present a lightweight, flexible option that uses vastly less material than other packaging substrates. Nina Butler of More Recycling shared a compelling image that succinctly demonstrated the power of film to reduce packaging volume. Seven pallets stacked double with cardboard boxes are lined up in the background ready to package baby diapers, while in the foreground, one single small pallet with four rolls of film is able to package the exact same amount of product.
Nina outlined the growing gap between the generation of films and the reclamation capacity. We collect more than we can process domestically and we will need significant increased demand for the recycled film material and processing capacity to balance the situation.
Today, the infrastructure only exists to collect and recycle polyethylene based films, such as high density polyethylene (HDPE), low density polyethylene (LDPE), and linear low density polyethylene (LLDPE). The recycled film is collected at Store Drop-Off locations, not through curbside programs, because the flexible nature of film means that it can easily get tangled in sortation equipment at MRFs, causing the lines to shut down so that workers can climb in and cut the film out. Almost all MRFs in the US consider film a contaminate for this reason, even if some film is made of the exact same kind of plastic as rigid bottles and containers they collect.
Kristi Hansen of Plastics Forming Enterprises (PFE) discussed some of the work PFE is doing with the SPC team to better understand the specific properties of the material currently in the Store Drop-off stream , while David Hudson of Avangard Innovative shared some of the biggest challenges they face as a recycler of film. Though they’re working with all polyethylene based films, processing different densities of films with different additives can be tricky, especially when brand owners who would purchase the recycled content expect it to have the same properties and be as uniform and visually appealing as virgin material. Some of their biggest challenges are contamination in the material they receive (more often due to retailers’ practices than consumer behavior!), including metals, paper, and other plastics, all of which can negatively impact the final recycled product. A single allen wrench carelessly thrown into a bale of film could wreak havoc if it passed through the metal detection equipment and made it into the reprocessing equipment undetected.
There are technologies available to remove some of these contaminants in the reprocessing of the film. Martin Baumann of EREMA North America, a manufacturer of recycling equipment, shared how their equipment can remove different levels of contamination. However, this additional processing incurs a potentially higher cost for the recycled material, and many recyclers will opt for simpler processes because brands and retailers are not always willing to pay the price premium for recycled resin.
All of the panelists agreed that there is a need for increased post-consumer recycled (PCR) content commitments from brands and retailers. Currently, the majority of recycled film (43%) is made into composite lumber for things like decking and park benches, while 37% is recycled back to film. This percentage of film-to-film could be higher if brands and retailers commit to purchasing and using PCR film. Increased demand for PCR will increase the processing capacity, which is currently lower than the amount of film that is collected, and will allow recyclers to invest in more advanced equipment that can produce high quality PCR to be used in more applications.
This limited capacity to process film is compounded by the fact that the US used to export more than 50% of its collected film to China, but China is no longer accepting this material. It will be important to build end markets domestically to make sure all of the collected film has a home. Bulter shared a tool developed by More Recycling that helps connect companies looking to purchase PCR with suppliers.
Education and outreach to consumers are also important, and the panelists urged brands and retailers to get involved in programs like How2Recycle and the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP), which help consumers to know which films they can recycle at Store Drop-Off locations and reduce contamination.
But educating consumers on what to do with their recyclable films is only half the battle. If we want to continue to call polyethylene films recyclable, we have to be sure that they are getting actually getting recycled. Polyethylene film may have the ability to be recycled, but if it is not collected or made into a new end product, then we aren’t closing the loop.
While PCR does have some differences in quality as compared to virgin resin, Martin argued that what is possible is “eye opening” in terms of potential applications of PCR film. For starters, he said, “there should be no garbage bag in the US that’s not made from 100% recycled materials.”