Early-stage work aimed at finding a solution to a rather vexing problem facing the recycling of flexible plastic packaging is showing promising signs.
But those involved in the Materials Recovery for the Future research effort make it clear that work is still in its infancy.
MRRF launched last year, and baseline testing at a materials recycling facility shows that 88% of all flexible packaging tested will sort with paper fiber.
The goal of the group is to determine whether a viable economic pathway exists to allow MRFs to successfully handle large amounts of flexible packaging — think items like pet food bags, pouches and potato chip bags, for example, that now commonly end up in landfills.
After an additional MRF study this spring in British Columbia, US, plans are to extend the research later this year and in 2017 to a plastics recycling facility, or PRF.
MRFs handle a wide variety of recyclables, including plastics, metal, paper and, sometimes, glass. A PRF is upstream from that initial sortation and dedicated to handling only plastics.
“This was our first year of the sponsored research program. We have successfully done the baseline testing and now we're going to be wrapping up this year with doing the actual MRF tests. I think we're early on,” said Susan Graff, a partner at Resource Recycling Systems of Ann Arbor, Mich., a consulting firm conducting research for the group.
“The preliminary findings were encouraging in that the material flowed in sync with the hypothesis that we had, and that is the fiber line,” Graff said at a plastics summit at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. conference in Las Vegas.
“If you see it gathering all in one place, that's a good sign in terms of a potential practical pathway for recycling it,” she said. “It was a good start.”
Sponsors for MRRF research project including a number of well-known companies, including Dow Chemical Co. PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Sealed Air Corp., Nestle SA and S.C. Johnson and Son. Trade groups backing the project include the Association of Plastic Recyclers, the Flexible Packaging Association and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
Part of the presentation was a solicitation for more companies to join in the effort, in both funding and expertise, to help push the project along.
“We know that it's going to take years. And we know that the more people get involved, it will accelerate,” Graff said. “It's not just cash. It's all good minds on this. It's the right partners from all the members of the value chain.”
Michael Timpane, a vice president at RRS, said researchers have to stay focused on providing a set of solutions that respect recyclers' bottom line.
“We can sort anything today,” he said, but that work needs to be “additive to a MRFs profit.”
Moving from a MRF setting to a PRF setting later this year will allow researchers to better understand whether material collected and sorted can be economically handled by plastic processors.
“We have to do an economic analysis to further sort it, to wash it, to pelletise it, all of those steps. What will that cost be and is that a feasible process in order to make it into something the end market would be interested in? And what are the end markets?” Graff said.
Diane Herndon, is manager of sustainability in North America for Nestle Purina PetCare. MRFF, she said, is being transparent in its work in an effort to spur additional interest.
“By putting that information out there, it might entice other groups to conduct further pilots in directions that will help further the goals of our research. It might also entice other collaborators to come into the pilot and be cofounders with the rest of us so we can keep this going,” Herndon said.
Because MRFs have many different designs and varying levels of sophistication, finding a pathway will be challenging, Graff said.
“It's not like we can say if we solve it this way, it will be scalable to all the other 600 MRFs, for example, in the US. The challenges are because MRFs are all so different,” Graff said. “The cost to achieve the ability to accept the material is going to be extremely variable.”
Work on the project comes as consumer packaged goods companies are facing increasing pressure to find recycling solutions for their packaging, Herndon said. They include consumer expectations, corporate environmental goals, shareholder resolutions, retail requirements and government regulations.
“There are a lot of consumers, not just Purina customers with pet food bags, but a lot of consumers that are looking for help in recycling plastic packaging that's more and more prevalent in their waste stream,” Herndon said.
“All these CPG companies, ourselves included, don't want to wait until we're forced to do things. We want to do things the right way. The way that make sense for our business. The way that make sense for society. And the way that helps our consumers,” Herndon said.
“It's really a pervasive issue across society,” she said.