Being in the business that we’re in, you can imagine that UPSTREAM’s supporters comprise a lot of die-hard recyclers. You know who I’m talking about, and probably many of our regular readers fit the type. I’m talking about the people that rinse out the produce bag for the hundred and fiftieth time to take back to the store; or that drink their wine out of repurposed glass salsa jars; or that have yogurt tubs dating back to the 1990s with multiple layers of masking tape detailing the leftovers that once occupied the container in the fridge. You know who you are.
Anyway, I was speaking with one of these die-hard recyclers – a fellow named Arthur Boone, who is one of the godfathers of the recycling movement in California. He said, “You know Matt, pretty much everything that comes into my house eventually goes into the green or blue cart. And when I look in my little garbage can, the only things that are left are flexible packaging and other crappy low-value plastics. What are we gonna do with all this stuff?”
So what are we talking about here? Well, according to the Flexible Packaging Association, by 2018, the number of pouches used annually in the U.S. is expected to reach 92 billion units. About half will be multi-layer pouches composed of multiple laminated materials, usually different polymers and coatings. These materials have a value of $9.4 billion and comprise over 9 billion pounds of materials, which unless something changes – all of which will end up as garbage or litter.
To put that into perspective, there were roughly 50 billion water bottles and around 90 billion aluminum cans consumed in the U.S. last year. So pouches are on track to exceed the consumption of aluminum cans in this country in a few years. So, as Arthur says, what are going to do with all this stuff?
As much as I would like give you a simple answer, I don’t have one for you. So we’ll peel the onion back a little bit more and start over with the solid waste hierarchy. As you all know, recycling is not at the top – source reduction is. And you can’t argue against the fact that flexible packaging reduces material use and energy consumption.
I recently saw a presentation depicting a life-cycle analysis (LCA) on food packaging in the EU conducted by the flexible packaging industry. The study made some interesting assumptions. It found that if you were to take all the flexible packaging currently in place – which is about 26% of food and beverage packaging by weight – and switch all the materials over to recyclable packaging and assume 100% recycling for all the materials – it would increase the global warming impact of food packaging by 6%. Commensurately, if you were take all the recyclable packaging and replace them with flexibiles, throw it all in the garbeage – it would diminish carbon impacts of that packaging by 40%.
On waste prevention, they gave a similar story. The study showed that if you replaced all the recyclable packaging with flexible packaging, you would reduce the amount of packaging by 77% overall.
So if you follow their logic, it’s game over, right? Let’s just switch everything over to flexibles, throw them all in the garbage and be done with it. Let’s reduce our way out of recycling. Of course, this is exactly what the flexible packaging industry is promoting. I go to the sustainable packaging and brand trade shows and I’ve seen all their presentations, and the message is “Our LCAs rule. The rest of you packaging types can drool. Consumer brands, you’ll soon be packaging all your stuff in our pouches.”
So the question, you have to ask yourself, is this the future we want to see? Where light-weighting displaces recycling? And where this industry is essentially let off the hook for creating a package where the only thing you can do – is toss it in the garbage when you’re done with it.
Now to some people, this may seem like small potatoes – but to us, it is at the center of a core debate around who defines the future of sustainability. It ultimately comes down to whether or not you believe that sustainable business practices should lead to the development of a circular economy. So that all of our stuff eventually goes to feed the creation of technical products like cell phones (technical nutrients) or to goes to feed bacteria as compost for farms or the creation of bio-based products (biological nutrients).
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is clear about this – sustainable packaging should be “effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed-loop cycles.” Also, many of you have heard about the Circular Economy 100, which is global partnership “bringing together businesses and innovators to accelerate the transition to a circular economy,” and includes corporations like Coca-Cola, Unilever, Apple, H&M, HP, IKEA, Phillips, etc. Here’s what they have to say – “A circular economy is one that is restorative by design… which distinguishes between and separates technical and biological materials… and aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.”
Does this sound like the flexible packaging industry’s definition of sustainability to you? Where material reduction and energy use trump everything else. Will all this material – 9 billion pounds annually and counting – ever be able to be utilized?
The industry says that the problem is not with our package, but with the MRFs. It’s not our fault that MRFs were built to handle heavier, thicker and single-material packaging. We’re the innovators here. Someone’s got to invest in the MRFs. To which we would say, Bingo. Someone needs to invest in the MRFs, the collection infrastructure, and effective public education to collect and utilize flexibles.
So now what? Of course, throwing flexibles willy-nilly into the curbside cart with all the containers is not going to work at the MRFs, so what can work?
If you follow from the premise that any collection program for flexibles and other low-value plastics should be something that works with existing curbside infrastructure and can recover single-polymer and multi-material pouches together, then you have to look at logistics first, then markets.
And on the logistics side, we’ve had a recent pilot program through Dow and Republic’s purple “energy bag” program in Citrus Heights, California. That program ran for three months last year and directed residents to put all non-recyclable plastic – including pouches, candy wrappers, cereal box liners, etc – into a purple bag which would then be placed in the recycling cart. At the MRF, the purple bag was sorted off the line early and sent to a pyrolosis – or plastics to fuel – plant run by Agilyx.
Suspending any opinions about pyrolysis and just focusing on the logistics, we would say that the Citrus Heights project is a viable model for the diversion of low-value plastics. It works with the existing curbside infrastructure; requires only one additional sort for residents, and showed promising results through the pilot. On the MRF side, it requires the addition of either an up-front manual or mechanical sort – relatively simple stuff. So from the logistical side, this could likely work.
Now, let’s talk about markets and what happens to these materials after the MRF. While the “energy bag program” focused on pyrolosis, which UPSTREAM opposes due to environmental health impacts and the thermal destruction of resources, the collected materials don’t have to be pryolized. Several experts in the field have argued for the development of PRFs or Plastics Recovery Facilities that could better sort these materials into saleable commodities. There are several companies that currently recycle post-industrial flexible packaging from industry, into pallets, trash cans, roofing materials, interior car parts, trash can liners, and outdoor furniture. There’s no reason why these companies and others couldn’t utilize clean materials collected curbside from households as well.
Well, there’s no reason except economics. Darnit. We were so close. Yeah, unfortunately to do any this stuff, it’s going to cost money. Unless we start replacing the small amount of aluminum in pouches with gold, the market alone will never solve this problem.
Several people in the field have urged us to pursue EPR for plastics and leave the rest of the better-performing commodities alone. There is sound rationale behind this argument. And if we take it one step further, we could promote EPR as a funding tool to pay for the development and expansion of the collection and recovery of flexibles and other low-value plastics toward recycling and potentially other technologies to utilize it.
However, these materials have so little value and are some of the highest polluting plastic applications that the best strategy may be to not use them at all.