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Film and Flexibles Packaging: The Path Forward

Recycling is unique. It is a complex, interwoven system where all parts of the value chain need to work for recycling to work. Each piece of the equation is important and cannot be overlooked. 

When evaluating the recyclability and ultimately circularity of various packaging, it is important to acknowledge the individual roadmaps they often require. An already prominent and continually growing form of packaging that requires a unique and innovative roadmap is one known as film and flexibles. It quickly became a favored form of packaging due to, among other factors, its lightweight and flexible properties but what has made this packaging a favored material is also what challenges its ability to move through the recycling system. 

Recognizing the fast-growing packaging category and the challenges it poses to the recycling system, The Recycling Partnership (The Partnership) launched the Film and Flexibles Recycling Coalition (the Coalition) in 2020. The mission of the Coalition is to bring together a pre-competitive group of stakeholders to drive improvements aimed at transforming the film and flexibles recycling landscape. The work is aimed at bringing the recycling of films to more Americans, adding in flexibles as markets and technology mature, with the ultimate goal of scaling the collection and processing of this material as end market demand improves. To scale quickly this material will need to move through the curbside recycling system. 

Three Primary Challenges 

The Coalition’s efforts are focused on the following challenges: 

  1. Less than 2% of Americans can put film and flexible packaging in their curbside recycling containers but given confusion around how the properly dispose of the material, it is still ending up in the recycling stream. 
  2. Materials recovery facilities (MRFs) continue to deal with challenges associated with film and flexible packaging flowing through their systems that were not designed to handle it, resulting in downtime, safety challenges, and contamination.  
  3. End markets are currently very limited.  

Where to Start When Tackling the Challenges 

To date, Coalition actions have included: 

  • Funding $2.3 million to rapidly prototype high and low-tech capture and processing methods.  
  • Setting a baseline understanding of the data available and where it highlights a need for action summarized in a whitepaper titled, “Addressing the Challenge of Film and Flexible Packaging Data.”  
  • Developing some of the most comprehensive composition and generation data in the U.S. to help The Partnership and the industry understand the nature and amount of material available for collection and processing, and in the case of film and flexibles, the need for recycling market development to support processing and end market opportunities. 
  • Addressing critical design issues, including research that led to metalized polyethylene (PE) structures moving from “detrimental” to “preferred” status within set limits in The APR Design® Guide.
  • Working with The Partnership’s Center for Sustainable Behavior and Impact to conduct ethnographic research on film drop-off to support additional methods of collection. 
  • Supporting market pull through the development and shared implementation of the APR-administered Residential Film Demand Champions program. 
  • Partnering with PRFLEX and other initiatives outside of the U.S. to gain insight into current methods being deployed for film and flexible packaging collection and processing that can be used for potential modeling in the U.S. 

Forward Thinking Problem Solving 

In its first three years, the Coalition has worked with 23 partners who have provided $5.2M in funding to support the mission of the Coalition. But much more is needed.  Highlighted In The Partnership’s “Paying It Forward” report is the fact that not only does the full recycling system need $17 billion to maximize its economic potential, but film and flexible packaging collection and processing alone needs $4.1 billion. While this could feel like an insurmountable challenge, the Coalition has the roadmap for how to make progress that will ultimately lead to a national scale of collection and processing. 

Included in this roadmap are: 

  • Continuing research around best methods for residential capture of film and flexible packaging in other parts of the world where systems are supporting it 
  • Continuing rapid prototyping of innovative collection methods 
  • Improving and optimizing U.S. collection and processing infrastructure 
  • Supporting the development and expansion of critical end markets 
  • Developing an economic model for access and infrastructure utilizing both voluntary and policy-driven funding 
  • Implementing proven behavior change strategies for communication, education, and support for new infrastructure capabilities. 

As film and flexible packaging will continue to be a prominent form of packaging, we need packages designed for recyclability, residential recycling options, processing infrastructure, and end markets to support the circularity of the materials.  Without support for the roadmap to address its systemic recycling issues, film and flexibles will continue to be lost to landfills, recycled content goals will not be met, and this material will face serious challenges as extended producer responsibility legislation continues to roll out across the country. No single company or organization can tackle the problem alone. The Coalition’s solutions are holistic and built on The Partnership’s extensive expertise and set of tools.  

Join us in our mission to transform the film and flexible packaging recycling landscape. Whether you would like to become a Coalition member to support this work, or you are a MRF, secondary sortation facility, or reclaimer in need of a grant to support capture and processing, click here to get started.