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Expanding Recycling Strategies for Film and Flexible Packaging


During the recent Plastics Recycling Conference, numerous discussions highlighted the recycling difficulties of film and flexible packaging. One session in particular, titled “Film and Flexibles Volumes, Collection & Processing: Scaling National Solutions in the U.S. and Canada,” addressed these challenges in detail. Film and flexible packaging, which are predominantly used in product branding, are notably challenging to recycle. In the U.S., film recycling is mainly possible through store drop-offs, while flexible packaging generally cannot be recycled unless it is redesigned to be made of a single material.


Speakers at the session included Kate Eagles, the program director at The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), and Charles David Mathieu-Poulin from Éco Entreprises Québec (EEQ), who discussed initiatives their organizations are taking to tackle the recycling issues of these materials.


Both the U.S. and Canada are seeing pushes for increased recycling efforts through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws, which mandate significant improvements in the collection and reuse of post-consumer resin (PCR) in new packaging projects. Canada’s EPR regulations, for example, require that by 2027, 40% of film and flexible packaging must be recycled in Quebec and 25% in Ontario by 2026. "With current recycling rates at only 4%, we face a steep climb to meet these goals within the next few years," Mathieu-Poulin noted.


These efforts are also fueled by ambitious goals set by brands through associations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and commitments under the U.S. and Canada Plastic Pacts, influenced by consumer demand for more environmentally friendly packaging options.


At the conference, APR revealed findings from a recent study with Eunomia Research and Consulting, focusing on the potential for advanced recycling technologies to enhance the recycling of residential film and flexible packaging. Additionally, Mathieu-Poulin provided an update on Canada’s PRFLEX project, which seeks to boost the collection and recycling rates of household flexible plastic packaging.


Exploring Advanced Recycling Techniques for Film and Flexible Packaging


The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), typically focused on mechanical recycling, has recently expanded its approach to include chemical recycling, particularly pyrolysis, as a complementary solution. In 2021, APR initiated a Chemical Recycling Research Working Group to explore the integration of chemical processes in recycling plastic products effectively.


Kate Eagles, a member of this working group, emphasized the role of chemical recycling: "We are supportive of chemical recycling technologies that complement mechanical recycling by converting post-consumer plastics back into recycled resins or resin precursors for new plastics products."


The working group’s latest report, titled “How to Scale the Recycling of Flexible Film Packaging: Modeling Pyrolysis’ Role in Collection, Quantity and Costs of a Comprehensive Solution,” examines how pyrolysis can be integrated into existing recycling strategies. The report specifically focuses on the consumer-facing aspects of flexible film packaging (FFP) recycling and explores the potential synergies between pyrolysis and the recovery processes for post-consumer film and flexible packaging. This approach aims to enhance the overall efficacy and cost-efficiency of recycling these challenging materials.


Kate Eagles highlighted that the report primarily addressed household flexible film packaging (FFP) due to its prominence in state and federal policies and the complexities associated with recycling mixed material streams. The focus on pyrolysis is strategic, as this technology is advancing rapidly and, according to research by Eunomia, can effectively handle a waste stream that is over 85% polyolefin.


Eagles stressed that the findings of the report are hypothetical, built on several assumptions including enhanced packaging design, increased policy support, more industry initiatives, and improved sorting techniques by 2030. She clarified, "I want to be clear that this isn't a step-by-step guide on how to achieve this—it's more of an exploration of potential outcomes."


Current State and Future Projections for 2030


Kate Eagles presented an overview of the current and projected states of flexible film packaging (FFP) recycling in the U.S. At present, the market sees about 12 million tons of FFP, with around 124,000 tons being residential polyethylene (PE) film, 90% of which is collected through store drop-offs. An additional three million tons, largely consisting of items like trash bags, are not currently targeted for recovery, leaving a balance of nine million tons. Of this, 3.7 million tons are attributed to commercial FFP, which the report does not cover, hence focusing on the remaining 5.3 million tons of residential film. This includes mixed polyolefins and mono-material PE or polypropylene (PP), with three million tons potentially recoverable through pyrolysis and 2.3 million through mechanical recycling.


Looking forward to 2030, Eagles shared scenarios based on strategic assumptions. These include converting half of the currently non-targetable material—due to its multi-material or multi-resin composition—into more recyclable forms such as mono-PP, mono-PE, or a polyolefin mix. Additionally, she speculated on the impact of expanding Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws from four to potentially nineteen states and the introduction of more voluntary recycling initiatives. This forward-looking approach questions how these changes could significantly alter the landscape of FFP recycling by 2030.


Kate Eagles outlined a future scenario where the residential flexible film packaging (FFP) stream could expand from the current 5.3 million tons to an estimated 7.1 million tons, considering proposed design changes and increased recycling capabilities. In this envisioned future, about 5.6 million tons could be suitable for pyrolysis, with 2.2 million tons resulting from these design modifications. Additionally, 59% of this stream might be recyclable through mechanical processes, assuming the material consists of mono-PE or mono-PP.


Eagles acknowledged the speculative nature of these figures, emphasizing the complexity of achieving such outcomes: “There are a lot of assumptions made here,” she noted. For instance, the current collection of household FFP is approximately 124,000 tons, which could potentially increase to 930,000 tons under the right conditions. This illustrates that while theoretically feasible, enhancing the recovery of residential film is neither simple nor cost-effective.


She further explained that while chemical recycling technologies like pyrolysis are crucial, they are just one component of a broader system that includes package design, collection, sortation, policy support, and consumer involvement. These elements must synergize for any significant systemic change. “This report sets the stage for further questions and extensive work, aiming to piece together various elements required for a transformative shift in recycling practices,” Eagles concluded.


Canada Aims to Enhance Recycling of Film and Flexible Packaging


In May 2023, a coalition of Canadian circularity leaders launched the PRFLEX initiative, aiming to revolutionize the recycling system for flexible packaging. This collaborative effort includes members such as the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP), the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC), Circular Materials, the Circular Plastics Taskforce (CPT), Éco Enterprises Québec (EEQ), Recycle BC, and The Film & Flexibles Recycling Coalition of The Recycling Partnership in the U.S.


As Charles David Mathieu-Poulin outlined, PRFLEX set out with four main objectives: to gather baseline data on how much flexible plastic packaging (FPP) is currently collected and recycled across provinces; to pinpoint gaps in the existing infrastructure of material recovery facilities (MRFs) and recycling centers; to explore and recommend advanced technologies and process improvements that could boost capture rates, enhance sorting, and yield higher-quality post-consumer resin (PCR); and to implement and assess the performance of these technologies in selected partner facilities.


With FPP accounting for nearly half of all packaging in Canada and growing annually by 4.2%, the urgency to address its recycling challenges is clear. "This is not a small issue; it's a significant one that we must address," Mathieu-Poulin emphasized. He acknowledged the substantial sustainability benefits of flexible packaging, such as reduced carbon emissions, improved transport efficiency, and extended shelf life for foods. However, he also recognized the considerable obstacles in recycling these materials, underscoring the comprehensive approach needed to tackle the issue.


Insights on Collection and Sortation from the Report


The PRFLEX initiative has brought new insights into the challenges of recycling film and flexible packaging (FPP) in Canada. Unlike the U.S., where curbside recycling for PE-based FPP is less common, about 70% of Canadian households have access to such services. However, as Charles David Mathieu-Poulin revealed, conversations with Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) have highlighted significant frustrations with handling this material.


The inherent characteristics of FPP, being lightweight and two-dimensional, complicate the sorting process. On conveyor belts, these properties cause FPP to overlap with other recyclables, often leading to contamination issues, particularly with paper. Additionally, FPP can wrap around and clog sorting machinery and is prone to contamination from organic materials. "And of course, it also requires a lot of handling," Mathieu-Poulin added. The manual or mechanical separation needed to prepare one 750-kg bale of flexible plastics involves sorting between 75,000 and 225,000 individual film pieces, presenting a considerable logistical challenge.


In terms of collection methodologies, Mathieu-Poulin criticized Canada's prevalent single-stream approach. While this method is less costly and simpler from a collection standpoint, it poses significant challenges for MRFs, suggesting a need for reevaluation to improve the recycling process for FPP.


PRFLEX is exploring various strategies to optimize the recycling of film and flexible packaging (FPP) in Canada. One approach being considered is the "bag-in-bag" method, already implemented in parts of the U.S. This system involves households placing all their FPP into a single bag before disposing of it in their recycling bins, simplifying the sorting process at material recovery facilities (MRFs) by reducing the number of individual picks required.

Another strategy involves using depots, a method akin to store drop-offs in the U.S., which has seen success in British Columbia. This setup allows for centralized collection points, easing the burden on MRFs.


At the MRF level, PRFLEX has evaluated potential enhancements such as installing additional equipment at the beginning of the sorting line specifically to segregate film, or integrating advanced quality control mechanisms to remove contaminants from the paper stream. However, as MP pointed out, "Some MRFs are not in the best shape or lack the space to incorporate new equipment or alter their configurations," suggesting that constructing new MRFs designed to efficiently handle film might be a viable alternative.


Another method under consideration is dual-stream collection, currently utilized in one-third of Canada's provinces. This system alternates the collection of paper and FPP, either weekly or by providing households with separate bins for each type of material. MP noted, "Dual-stream is more complicated; it requires extensive consumer education and incurs higher costs." These initiatives highlight PRFLEX's commitment to finding effective solutions despite the complexities and costs associated with improving FPP recycling.


Strategic Proposals for Advancing FPP Recycling in Canada


In conclusion, PRFLEX's research has led to the development of nine key recommendations aimed at boosting the recycling of PE-based FPP from 30,000 tons per year to 100,000 tons of various types of FPP by 2027:


1.    Aim for better harmonization of FPP through the implementation of design for recyclability measures following established industry guidelines.

2.     Through regulatory reporting and waste studies, improve the understanding of FPP composition and market.

3.     Accept all FPP in curbside collection and make MRFs responsible for capturing FPP, and not for separating FPP by resin or type.

4.     Set up dedicated collection of FPP in ICI (industrial, commercial, and institutional).

5.     Where not already implemented, evaluate the feasibility of dual-stream collection.

6.     When dual stream is not suitable, evaluate the feasibility of building new single-stream MRFs designed to sort FPP more efficiently.

7.     If building a new single-stream MRF is not feasible, implement solutions for reducing loose FPP, such as depots and bag-in-bag collection programs.

8.     Develop new capacities for FPP separation at reclaimers and implement emerging sorting and recycling technologies.

9.     Through supply chain collaboration, support the building of viable end-markets for all types of collected FPP, including hard-to-recycle materials.


Regarding chemical recycling, Mathieu-Poulin explained, "Currently, our focus is primarily on mechanical recycling, with just a handful of companies exploring chemical recycling methods. However, to effectively process some of the FPP materials that cannot be handled by mechanical means, we will need to rely more on chemical recycling technologies."

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