Initiatives Highlight: Flexible Packaging Recycling Project

Research sponsored by the Materials Recovery for the Future collaborative, and administered by the Foundation for Chemistry Research & Initiatives, showed that automated sorting technologies in use today can be optimized to capture flexible plastic packaging—potentially creating a new stream of recovered materials while improving the quality of other recycling streams.

The research, documented in the Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) report, “Flexible Packaging Sortation at Materials Recovery Facilities,” demonstrates that with adequate screening and optical sorting capacity, flexible plastic packaging can be efficiently captured in a single-stream materials recovery facility (MRF).

“Flexible packaging has many positive attributes—highly efficient, great product protection, and lower environmental impact than many alternatives. However, recovery has been one of its weak points,” said Brad Rodgers, foods packaging research and development director for discovery and sustainability at PepsiCo. “This study is shedding light on pathways that can be deployed to improve flexible packaging end-of-life options. PepsiCo is proud to be actively engaged in this industry collaboration.”

“Lifecycle assessment provides compelling data regarding the potential benefits films can offer,” shares Stephen Sikra, P&G technology manager for materials science. “This research provides a valuable foundation for helping advance new solutions for flexible film recovery, and we are proud to be part of it.” Common forms of flexible plastic packaging include re-sealable food bags, pouches for laundry detergent pods, pet food bags, and snack bags.

“We now know how flexibles flow through a material recovery facility and that the technology already exists for separating flexibles out of the materials streams,” said Larry Baner, senior packaging research scientist, global packaging and design for Nestlé Purina Petcare. “Although there is still a lot of work to be done to define the best way to separate flexibles from single-stream recyclables, this research moves us closer to solutions.”

This first phase of the research program included baseline testing, equipment testing, and a series of recovery facility trials to test existing sortation technologies commonly used in MRFs, such as screens and optical scanners. RRS developed the test methodology and conducted the research trials. Subsequent research will focus on further refinements to sorting technology, economic feasibility, assessing end-use markets for the material, and developing a recovery facility demonstration project.