Film and flexible packaging is unlike other packaging when it comes to recycling. For starters, it’s not a single packaging type – the term encompasses a wide range of packaging, from polyethylene (PE) air pillows protecting e-commerce goods to heavy-duty dog food bags, to salty snack bags with a metallized inner lining. Unlike bottles and cans, film and flexible packaging cannot be recycled in your curbside recycling container. While some of these items can be returned to retailers to be recycled through store drop-off programs, most are not eligible for recycling there either.
Another feature that distinguishes film and flexible packaging from commonly recycled packaging is a significant lack of data. Bottles, cans, and fiber recyclables are well-established recyclable commodities. Over time, industry has developed tools to track and measure how well we recycle those items. Film and flexibles are different. While some industry groups track production of film and flexible packaging, they don’t distinguish between commercial and residential generation and recovery. Other reports provide either generation or recovery estimates, but not both. Further, there’s no single data source that provides an estimate of how much film and flexible packaging households generate, and how much they recycle. Unfortunately, without better data, it will be impossible for producers and brands to use flexible packaging to achieve their aggressive recycling commitments, or for industry to understand whether we’re making measurable progress toward those commitments over time.
The Recycling Partnership’s Film and Flexibles Coalition is a group of industry partners along the packaging supply chain that’s working to measurably increase recovery of film and flexible packaging. The Coalition set out to understand this data gap as a foundation for future action. In our just-released report, Addressing the Challenge of Film and Flexible Packaging Data, we summarize available data sources on this packaging category and describe actions needed to advance recovery.
The report lays out a solution to address data gaps. The Coalition pledges to work with various industry groups and the U.S. Plastics Pact to collect missing data, establishing a foundation for tracking future progress. Capture rate studies will gather metrics on household generation and recovery of film and flexible packaging and will establish a needed standard for addressing film and flexible packaging in capture rate studies.
The Coalition also wants to know where film and flexible packaging can be recovered. While store drop-off programs at retailers are available to most Americans, curbside recycling is generally considered more convenient, and accordingly, more members of the public participate in curbside recycling. Curbside recycling of film and flexible packaging will be needed to reach the 30% recycling target set by the Coalition. However, most Americans can’t recycle these items at the curb. Coalition research found that just 1% of all U.S. households live in communities that report “monomaterial PE” (like air pillows, plastic grocery bags, or paper towel overwraps) as an acceptable recyclable material for curbside recycling. To help create and scale curbside collection of film and flexible packaging, the Coalition will initiate and manage action grants to work with communities and MRFs to understand what works and what doesn’t to successfully collect film and flexible packaging at the curb.
Finally, collecting and processing film and flexible packaging through curbside recycling means nothing without end markets ready to purchase and reprocess it into new products or packaging. Today, there are a limited number of end markets buying this commodity. As we build the capacity of local governments to accept film and flexibles at the curb, we must also support reclaimers and end markets who will produce new products from it.
One thing is clear. Aggressive recycling commitments cannot be met without equally aggressive capital commitments to invest in the U.S. system and to deliver on public and private expectations. We need more companies and the table, and more capital to test and drive solutions to 1) provide equitable access to recycling, 2) restore trust and reduce confusion about the system, 3) modernize sortation, 4) influence packaging design for circularity, and 5) catalyze new end markets for recovered material. And importantly, we need to take action quickly to have any opportunity to meet lofty 2025 or 2030 sustainable packaging commitments. Learn more in our white paper.
Check out the full report for a detailed discussion of the challenges posed by the lack of data in this important space, and concrete action the Coalition needs to take to address those challenges. To fully advance the recovery of film and flexible packaging and make it as easy to recycle as a bottle or can, we need support and participation from across the industry. We encourage every brand using film and flexible packaging, every retailer selling it, and every packaging producer making it to join forces through this pre-competitive collaboration. Be part of the solution. Join us today to create a circular economy for film and flexibles and a true Pathway to Circularity.