When it comes to plastic, films and flexible formats — like the air pillows that protect goods shipped by e-commerce retailers, heavy-duty bags that hold dog food or soil, and the wrap that might hug your vegetables — are the bane of a recycler’s existence. It’s easy to understand why: This type of single-use plastic is more challenging than others to recycle.
There are a few reasons why these types of plastic are difficult to work with. "The biggest one being that it's very lightweight, and you have a very little amount of material per packaging piece," Leela Dilkes-Hoffman, program manager for plastics research and innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), told GreenBiz. "There’s then issues of getting that collected and sorted, and the fact that it has very low value."
Add to that, flexible packaging is typically more highly contaminated with substances such as inks and dyes than other plastics. Recyclers who want to get higher quality, mechanically recycled output, must ask and answer these questions for their processes to be successful, according to Dilkes-Hoffman: How do you remove inks? How do you remove glues? How do you have really solid washing processes?
Another challenge? Flexible plastic packaging is sometimes made of lots of materials that are layered together, which makes it hard to deal with in a recycling process. Plus, it’s hard to collect. In most of the United States, this type of material is not welcome in curbside recycling bins. The residential recycling rate for film and flexible packaging in 2020 was just 2 percent, according to an estimation by the Flexible Packaging Association.
While these plastics are a nuisance to address, that fact might be one of the strong motivators for businesses to fix the waste stream for them. After all, flexible packaging is the fastest-growing plastic packaging category, according to a recent EMF report focused on flexible packaging.
The residential recycling rate for film and flexible packaging in 2020 was just 2%.
The report presents a strategy for addressing all flexible packaging made from paper or plastic (this story is focused on the latter), with 21 suggested actions that EMF says are needed to make progress as the timeline for companies to reach their 2025 plastic packaging goals shrinks. At least 98 companies, organizations and governments comprise the U.S. Plastics Pact, part of the 12-pact network underneath EMF’s Global Commitment, that is aimed at building a circular economy for plastic by moving from single-use to reuse and increasing the reuse, collection and recycling or composting of plastic packaging, among other goals by 2025.
The report recommendations also look beyond that relatively near-term timeline.
One strategy advocated by the EMF report is to ensure that single-use flexible packaging that cannot be eliminated can be circulated and used again.
A local circular collaboration for flexibles
A new local partnership in the Twin Cities Metro area is trying to create a system of that nature, at least in that region of the United States. The effort is led by Minnesota’s MBOLD coalition, an initiative of the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul Economic Development Partnership, which includes Cargill, Target and McKinsey & Co. on its membership roster.
By the spring of 2023, a $24 million, 170,000-square-foot plastic recycling plant will be in operation, just 25 minutes northwest of downtown Minneapolis, in Rogers, Minnesota. It's the first U.S. operation from recycler Myplas USA. (Myplas USA's parent company MRI Investments Inc. also operates plastics recycler Myplas Ltd. of Cape Town, South Africa.)
The goal of the project is to expand film recycling infrastructure and the supply of recycled resin for use in new products.
"To make that work, you really need an across-the-supply chain collaboration," said Andrew Pieterse, CEO of Myplas USA.
Support for the plant and its intended work encompasses a range of companies and organizations. Funding for the recycling plant includes a combined $9.2 million equity investment led by investors General Mills, Schwan’s Company and Wisconsin-based film manufacturer Charter Next Generation, along with supporting investors Target and Ecolab. Additionally, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and Closed Loop Partners are each providing multi-million-dollar debt financing to Myplas USA.
"The secret sauce for MBOLD was the commitment to collaboration among our members paired with CEO-level leadership, and first-rate value chain partners," said JoAnne Berkenkamp, managing director of the coalition, who noted that the partnership has been about two years in the making. "We all understood the win-win nature of this collaboration. And that's what really drove us forward."
Once the plant is up and running at full capacity, it could recycle nearly 90 million pounds of low- and high-density polyethylene packaging and film annually, according to the coalition. To put that into context, in a 2021 white paper the Recycling Partnership estimated that U.S. households generate 10.4 billion pounds of film and flexible packaging waste each year.
Mechanical recycling is the approach Myplas is taking in this operation. Here’s how the recycling process will work: At the beginning there is a collection of plastic waste. (More on that in a moment.) It is sorted by type, ground into smaller pieces, washed to get rid of contamination, then extruded to form pellets, which can be used to make other plastic products.
Once pellets are created, Charter Next Generation will work with MBOLD members Cargill, General Mills, Schwan’s Company, Land O’Lakes and the University of Minnesota to determine potential uses for the recycled resin in their operations.
Charter wasn’t able to get into the specifics about how the resins might be used at this point, but the company said they have the potential to be used in the industrial, agricultural and apparel industries. An example of the latter might be a film-type package such as those used to hold garments in e-commerce orders. To determine more potential applications, the company is having conversations with MBOLD members and planning for walkthroughs of their operations.
"Let's see some of the items that you're collecting right now or maybe throwing away, and maybe those are the items we can get [post-consumer resin, or PCR] content into," said Scott Hammer, director of corporate sustainability at Charter Next Generation, about determining how to use the recycled pellets.
We hope others can learn from it, adapt it and improve on it.
Searching for potential applications for PCR is "kind of like a treasure hunt," Hammer said. "Sometimes you overlook the obvious because you deal with it every day and another set of eyes is always good to have come in there and identify those potential outlets," he added.
As mentioned earlier, plastic films are hard to collect because of their single-use nature and the lack of infrastructure. Pieterse said Myplas is working with some project partners to figure out how to increase collection.
There is already at least one example of how collection could work in the short term: Some big-box retailers such as Target and Walmart and grocery markets such as Safeway and ShopRite have plastic bag collection bins near the entrances of their stores.
"There's already options there. There's low-hanging fruit," Pieterse said, noting that the longer-term vision is to create a mechanism for collecting film that is closer to and easier for consumers and that is also efficient in getting what’s collected to the right facility to be recycled. "It’s going to be a years-long journey… We've got to start somewhere."
"It's not a nice to have any more. We’ve got to do something, and we’ve got to do something now," Pieterse said. That’s why these companies are partnering to address the flexible packaging problem in the Upper Midwest.
Berkenkamp noted she hopes the collaboration serves as a model for other regions. "We hope others can learn from it, adapt it and improve on it."
First and foremost, you need to look at moving away from single-use flexible packaging, both through questioning what's actually necessary.
Other strategies for addressing flexible packaging waste
Considering the barriers to recycling for flexible plastic packaging, there are other ways to address these types of materials.
One suggested solution is to design packaging from the outset with future recycling in mind, said Dilkes-Hoffman. Among other things, that means minimizing use of inks and glues, and using a single type of polymer rather than multiple types of plastic layered together.
But the No. 1 recommendation in EMF’s strategy is to eliminate and innovate away from single-use flexible packaging.
"First and foremost, you need to look at moving away from single-use flexible packaging, both through questioning what's actually necessary," Dilkes-Hoffman said. "And then we need to be looking at innovation and again questioning ourselves. Do we need a single-use material in the first place?"
This article has been updated to clarify the location of the partnership.