Innovative recycling program diverts over 2.7 million pounds of flexible films from landfill
Ann Arbor, Mich., April 20, 2023 – Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) is pleased to announce completion of the Materials Recovery for the Future Project which culminated in a final report. The RRS Research Team produced design specifications, multi-year bale monitoring, and end market research to support production of a new commodity MRF bale called rFlex.
Packaging producers and brand owners collectively funded RRS research and an equipment upgrade to the TotalRecycle Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) located in Berks Country, Pennsylvania. Operated by J.P. Mascaro & Sons, this was the first MRF in the nation to accept flexible plastic packaging (FPP) along with other consumer recyclables in curbside recycling carts.
TotalRecycle MRF successfully diverted over 2.7 million pounds of flexible plastic packaging from its landfills. Today, nearly 60,000 households in ten Pennslyvania communities across participate in the flexible packaging program, conveniently recycling FPP along with other recyclables in their curbside cart.
The 2023 Final Report analyzes bale composition, MRF sorting technologies and end market outlets for rFlex from August 2020 to the end of 2022. Despite challenging conditions in both recycling infrastructure and domestic manufacturing over the last two year period, the RRS team found positive environmental and economic returns associated with four different MRF-to-end market recycling pathways.
At the onset of the project, RRS estimated that over 12 billion pounds of FPP is consumed annually in the U.S., twice the size of the PET bottle market, and the volume has steadily increased since then.
“Films and flexible packaging represent one of the largest categories of plastic packaging. A circular economy for plastics is not possible without solutions for these forms of packaging. As new markets evolve, market demand is rapidly developing to provide more circular solutions than landfill or incineration and offset the need for virgin plastics,” said Anne Johnson, Vice President of Global Corporate Sustainability at RRS.
RRS evaluated the technical and economic feasibility of sorting FPP curbside utilizing its financial model which analyzed the potential benefits of collecting and sorting FPP in large single-stream MRFs. TotalRecycle General Manager Jeff Furmanchin found the benefits to be three-fold: 1) moved FPP from residue destined for landfill to a potentially profitable bale; 2) reduced labor needed to clean the fiber lines; and 3) improved the quality of the fiber bales, even with increased levels of FPP in the stream. The economics are most favorable in areas with higher landfill tip fees due to the avoidance of residue disposal costs.
FPP is a popular choice because of its environmentally preferrable qualities that include light weight, the small quantity of raw material needed in its production and its superior performance in reducing food spoilage. But this lightweight quality comes with a price to recyclers: equipment upgrades are required to sort this packaging stream.
Due to its two-dimensional shape, FPP generally flows with paper in large single stream MRFs, which makes removing FPP on paper lines the most efficient, scalable way to capture this material in large MRFs.
RRS recommendations for successful FPP curbside recycling:
- More curbside carts are needed for residential collection. For example, with additional curbside carts in the communities served in this project alone, TotalRecycle MRF has the capacity to auto sort 6.2 million pounds per year of FPP into a commodity bale known as rFlex.
- An increased degree of automated MRF sorting and financial investment in MRF upgrades.
- Supply chain partnerships. Long-term feedstock supply agreements between MRFs and end markets are the best approach to justify investments in MRF sorting that supply recycled flexible packaging at scale.
- End market demand for PCR film and flexible packaging has escalated. The primary buyer for the rFlex bale to date has been roof cover board manufacturers. Improvements in sorting and growth in post-processing is needed to create a resilient set of PCR plastic markets.
To read the final report and learn more about this project, visit:
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Founded in 1986 and headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) is a sustainability and recycling consulting firm that strives to create a world where resources are managed to maximize economic and social benefit while minimizing environmental harm. The firm consists of industry professionals, engineers, economists, scientists, and communication specialists who share this vision and possess core strengths in materials and recovery, life cycle management, applied sustainable design, and collaborative action plan development. www.recycle.com
About Materials Recovery for the Future
Materials Recovery For the Future is an initiative of the Foundation for Chemistry Research and Initiatives, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization established by the American Chemistry Council.
Fastlane on behalf of RRS