June Sustainable Times Newsletter
In July 2018, a joint press release was issued by the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and Plastic Recycling Europe (PRE) stating that the following four criteria must be met to consider a plastic product recyclable:
- The product must be made with a plastic that is collected for recycling, has market value and/or is supported by a legislatively mandated program
- The product must be sorted and aggregated into defined streams for recycling processes
- The product can be processed and reclaimed/recycled with commercial recycling processes
- The recycled plastic becomes a raw material that is used in the production of new product
Per the definition, it is imperative that the plastic packaging industry focus upon all aspects of the recycling process. This goes beyond simply design for recycling, which was a topic of the previous Sustainable Times article. Focus is needed to enhance the collection, sorting and identification, recyclability processes and end markets to complete the requirements for recyclability. This article will provide updates on activities in these additional areas.
The holy grail of collection is single-sort collection at curbside. With this option, products destined for recycling are collected and brought to a MRF (material recovery facility). In the MRF, the materials undergo a variety of processes where they are separated according to material type. In one of the processes, the light materials (paper and cardboard) get separated from the heavier materials (plastics, steel, glass and aluminum) using what is called a star screen. This star-shaped screen separates the materials through a rotation process where the lighter materials advance and the heavier materials fall back, creating a separation. It is in this process where flexible plastic packaging causes problems with the separation process, either creating contamination with the paper stream or clogging up the star screens, which require stopping the recycling process for cleaning. This is a good example of a limitation preventing the collection of flexible plastic materials with bulk curbside recycling.
Pilot Offers Potential for Recycling of Flexible Packaging with Bulk Collection
Pilot studies are underway evaluating the feasibility of separating flexible packaging from paper and other recyclables during curbside collection. The organization Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) is undergoing a feasibility project with a recycler in Birdsboro, PA, assessing the ability to sort flexible packaging from other curbside collected items. The pilot study uses different optical sorting and mechanical equipment. The test will have a report on feasibility by year end 2019. If successful, this concept will serve as a pilot for others to adopt [link].
Flexible Packaging Recycling Option: Front of Store Drop-Off
At the present time, the collection of flexible packages for recycling is limited to the front of store drop-off option. This method allows the consumer to return certain packages back to the store for recycling after use. Packages must be clean and dry, ready for the recycling process. [see the March 2019 issue of the Sustainable Times update for more details regarding this process]
Sortation and Identification
Whether bulk collection or single-sort collection like front of store drop-off, it is imperative that materials
are easily identified and sorted. The proper identification of packaging materials is important to ensure
contamination is kept to a minimum when recycling to yield the optimal quality.
The How2Recycle labeling initiative is growing in popularity as a product labeling method ensuring the consumer understands how to prepare the package, as well as options for recycling the package. This option is suited for both flexible and rigid packaging and is clear and consistent across all formats. Consumers need to be better informed about their options for recyclable packaging and this labeling option is growing in popularity. APC can assist you in learning more about this option and how to get started. [see the March 2019 issue of the Sustainable Times update for more details regarding this process]
American Packaging Corporation Joins the How2Recycle® Initiative
The need for standardized labeling is imperative to aid consumers with their choice on how to properly recycle their packaging. How2Recycle labels provide clear and consistent messaging on how to prepare the package, as well as instructions for disposal or recycling based upon the package contents. The How2Recycle label is a project of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
Digital watermarking technology offers significant potential for the brand owner, providing functionality like QR codes and UPC codes without the need for additional print on the package. This watermark is integrated into the graphics on the pouch and can be easily read with a scanner or camera on the phone. This offering provides the brand owner with options such as educating and informing the consumer about the product, as well as enhance the checkout experience. Additional potential for Digimarc digital watermarking is being evaluated as a method to assist in the identification of multi-material laminates and plastic packaging. This technology has the potential to easily identify complex materials in the recycling process, offering significant potential for sortation in the future. [link]
Pending Legislation: Standardized Labeling on Recycle Bins
Consumers need better guidance on what can and cannot be recycled. Labeling initiatives like the How2Recycle program are an option for on-the-package. What about the bins themselves? How do we further improve guidance to consumers to prevent contamination of recyclables. The non-profit organization Recycle Across America has developed standardized recycling labels that aim to resolve this issue. The Environmental Protection Agency is developing a strategy as part of the subcommittee’s fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill to expedite standardized recycling labels on recycle bins in coordination with the Recycle Across America program. This $37.3 billion bill has passed the House Appropriations Committee and will be considered by the House floor [link].
Once materials are collected and sorted, there is a need to transform the materials to a state where they can be used as feedstock for the production of new products. There are significant benefits to recycling, including reduction of fossil resources over the packaging life cycle. The two most common options for recycled plastics in flexible packaging are polyester (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). In a study conducted the APR1, data shows that use of recycled plastics reduces the total energy consumption by 79% for PET and 88% for HDPE and emissions by 67% for PET and 71% for HDPE.
Recycling of plastic materials is conventionally performed using two different methods, including mechanical and chemical. Each method has specific advantages:
This option is best suited for plastics that are separated according to material. This process grinds, melts and repelletizes the material back into a raw material suitable for the production of new items. This option is limited as it can be susceptible to colors and additives that are already in the plastic material and can exhibit some loss in mechanical properties. It is common that these materials are blended at small percentages with virgin feedstocks.
This option is best suited for plastics that are hard to recycle or comprised of multi-materials. This option uses chemicals to dissolve the plastic(s) material and transforms the components back to their original state. The advantage of this technology is that it removes
colors and additives, and the mechanical properties remain consistent with the original material.
Post-Consumer Recycled Content
The addition of PCR resin is necessary to support the circular economy and drive demand for recycled materials. APC can offer laminates with PCR content for both polyester (PET) and polyethylene (PE) films suitable for both food and non-food applications. PET offerings can use 90% PCR content and can be manufactured using both mechanical and chemical recycling processes. Polyethylene offerings are available at a maximum of 30%.
Ever wonder what happens to some of the packages collected at the front of store drop-off? Novolex has over 30,000 drop-off centers located across the US and recycles millions of pounds of plastic each year. These locations are available by using the www.plasticfilmrecycling.org link and typing in your zip code. This link has a great video of the process.
The Sustainability Times is a quarterly newsletter compiled by the American Packaging Corporation designed to educate, provide industry highlights and keep you informed of sustainable solutions being developed by APC. If there are any questions, please feel free to contact your sales representative or Jeff Travis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1Franklin Associates (2018), Life Cycle Impacts for Postconsumer Recycled Resins: PET, HDPE, and PP