In many cases, recycling can help improve a packages sustainability profile. In addition, when brand owners and package designers develop products that should be recycled there’s an expectation that correct sorting and recycling actually happens. But what exactly does correct sorting and recycling entail? How do these various materials flow once they enter the recycling facility? That’s what five national trade associations, representing a wide range of packaging types, set out to discover with the Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) Material Flow Study. Working together with the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR), Carton Council of North America (CCNA), Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) and the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) we wanted to learn more about how materials similar to the test samples and other study materials would flow through typical MRF environment. And which of the study materials, not currently accepted by MRFs, could potentially be recycled using existing MRF infrastructure. Finally, we wanted to begin to understand what sort of processes could be modified to allow effective recovery of sample materials.
The findings were not exactly what we expected. We discovered that the size and shape of a package plays a role in where they ultimately end up, even when consumers put them in the bin. In addition, various types of sortation processes have different effects on outcomes. For example, we learned that flattening or crushing items before they go into the recycling bin makes the materials more likely to be sorted incorrectly, winding up as residue. This is a far cry from the old days when the industry preached, “empty, rinse and crush.” This is because items tend to flow with similarly sized and shaped materials, so objects that have a distinct and more 3D shape have a better chance of being properly recycled. The study not only tested items that are already widely recycled, it also included less commonly recycled packages, things like cartons, foam polystyrene, and other non-bottle containers. Many of the lower volume materials weren’t sorted correctly due to the sorters’ lack of familiarity with the objects. Check out the full findings here.
Now that we have a good handle on how various types of packaging moves through a MRF, we can use the information to help boost recycling rates. There is certainly opportunity for improved recovery, and optimization can occur across the value chain- from packaging design to sortation technology. In addition, packaging is always evolving, becoming more diverse and lightweight. The Materials Flow study is a necessary first step in ensuring we recover the value of all packaging. Check out the Study Infographic for a look at the key conclusions.