If multi-material film packaging is not recyclable, why don't we just use recyclable alternatives?

There are many advantages to creating packaging from multi-material flexible films. Increased barrier protection, longer shelf life and reduced material demand are just a few. Ultimately, the best package is the one that provides the most effective product protection. While some recyclable alternatives may work for certain products the decision to design a recyclable package will depend on the variety of needs required by the product and brand owner.

Why is multi-material film packaging unrecyclable?

Recyclability depends on success across a variety of stages:

1. Can the material be cost-effectively collected and sorted?

2. Can it be converted/recycled?

3. Are the end-markets strong enough to create a supply and demand dynamic?

Because of the huge variety in types of multi-materials flexible packaging, as well as their high use in food products, the ability to recycle is limited. Although innovations in this area are occurring, end-market prices and demand, as well as cost-effective technologies, make it challenging to create a recycling market for this material within the current system.

Success will be dependent upon our ability to create sufficient volume, to sort resins (resulting from the multiple layers used within the package) or to find technologies and end markets that can work with blended resins. Lastly, those end-markets will need to have sufficient growth and economics to help defray the costs of collection, sortation and processing.  

If packaging made from multi-material films can not be recycled than what are the next best options for end of life?

There are a variety of options for end-of-life management of multi-material flexible packaging depending on where in the system they are collected, and what processes are employed in local MRFs. Multi-material flexible packaging may be disposed of in landfill. Current science suggests that they are inert in landfill and do not contribute to GHG emissions. If collection or sortation systems exist at local MRFs they may be re-directed towards waste-to-energy where they help offset the combustion of pure petroleum resources, or alternatively, they may be directed towards pyrolysis or gasification to recapture the petrochemicals from which they were made. Additionally, depending on how they were made, composting may be an option.

How can we stimulate end markets to increase recycling?  

There are a lot of factors that go into end-market development. End-markets could be true closed loop systems where polymers stay intact and are re-used for similar purposes again , or they may be downcycled for use in other products where re-use may be limited. At the current time, end-market development is challenged by the ability to collect and sort clean material, and the ability to identify polymer makeup. Addressing design, collection and sortation may help identify the ability to collect sufficient quality. Re-use options will then need to be explored based upon existing re-manufacturing options and any regulatory or safety barriers. Once these issues can be addressed, then demand and pricing can be explored. This could be done through market economics, regulatory incentives such as recycled content mandates or voluntary measures such as company goals.

If compostable options exist why aren't more packages made from compostable films?

Package design is strongly influenced by the product it is designed to protect. Material choices will reflect barrier properties needed, as well as shelf life objectives and product type. Compostable films may not be suitable for all products. Additionally, the ability to collect, sort and process compostable packaging is still under development. There are only a limited number of municipal composting programs available that accept compostable plastics.

I am a brand owner or manufacturer seeking to get rid of pre-consumer multi-material films. What are my options?

Pre-consumer films have an advantage over post-consumer as the material is clean and uncontaminated by food or other residual products. Additionally, processors can be informed of the exact make-up of the multi-material package and thus adjust technical processing capabilities accordingly.

Despite the advantages, processing capabilities are still limited, there are are only a few processors available. Please review options on our mechanical recycling page. Additional options include sending material to a waste-to-energy facility, a pyrolysis facility or landfill. Cost and environmental impacts, as well as transportation, should be evaluated when making a decision for disposal.