At the end of a flexible package’s life it typically sends less material to landfills than other types of packaging. This is because it is so lightweight and requires much less material than other packaging to do the same job. In the U.S., approximately 50% of flexible packaging can easily be recycled through in-store drop-off programs; others present more of a challenge with today’s technology and recycling facility infrastructure. As has happened in other markets, technical innovation comes first, and recycling needs time to catch up. Research is progressing on many fronts to develop more and better recovery and recycling solutions.
Single layer polyethylene (PE) films can be recycled, but often must be dropped off at grocery stores since most curbside programs are not yet able to sort and process PE films. The store collection program is called “WRAP” (Wrap Recycling Action Program) and is available to more than 90% of Americans at more than 18,000 major grocery and retail stores.
Multi-material flexible films contain different layers of materials (paper, plastic, film, foil, metallized or coated paper). These carefully engineered materials provide many of the properties that consumers and businesses love – adding durability, product safety, extending product life – but their construction also makes it more difficult to recycle. Multi-materials can be beneficially reused through a waste to energy facility. This approach is used extensively in countries like Japan, but is not yet widespread in the U.S.
Many efforts are underway to overcome recovery and recycling challenges, including public and private collaborative programs that help educate consumers and put new processes in place. Others focus on developing new recycling technologies or more recyclable materials for use in flexible packaging.