The Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) project is a research collaboration that brings together leading brand owners, manufacturers, packaging companies, trade associations and other key members of the value chain committed to finding solutions to improve recovery of flexible packaging that is not widely recycled in the current system.

The project’s vision is that flexible packaging goes into the recycling bin and the recovery industry captures value from it. Additionally, the process must be scalable. Those are the key takeaways from the MRFF presentation at FPA’s 2016 Fall Executive Conference.

Susan Graff, Principal/Vice President, Global Corporate Sustainability, Resource Recycling Systems, who manages the MRFF project, stated that phase 1 test results demonstrate that with adequate screening and optical sorting, flexible packaging can be efficiently captured in a single-stream materials recovery facility (MRF).

Changing Mix

Graff notes that changes in the packaging mix drive the need for flexible packaging companies to get more involved. First, flexible packaging is becoming a greater share of the residential recycling stream than it was before. Recyclers are seeing fewer glass and steel containers, but get more flexible packages and corrugated board. Graff also noted that flexible packaging has many positive attributes but “recovery has been one of its weak points,” said Brad Rogers of PepsiCo. This research project provides pathways to address this concern.

A second reason for involvement is the environmental concerns of brand owners. Graff relates the comment of one brand owner representative who put it this way: “We don’t want landfills to be excavated in 50 years and our flexible plastic bags, bearing our company’s name, show up as ‘permanent branded litter’ …”

Flexible packaging, now in residential recycling, is seen as a contaminant, Graff says. It sorts with paper in a material recovery facility, but needs to become a new, distinct product. She used the term “flexible plastic bale” and emphasized that the bale has to have economic value.

The MRFF project aims to make recycled flexibles a new, valuable product by using optical sorters to extract a relatively clean stream of flexibles. In a series of tests, the project was able to sort about 90% of flexible plastic packaging from the test stream. However, a challenge remains as a large quantity of paper was ejected with the flexibles.

The MRFF project’s next stage would be to refine sorting at the materials recovery facility to improve efficiency and create a cleaner flexible packaging stream. The effort also needs to evaluate reprocessing cost and feasibility, and it needs to develop a product bale for end markets.

The MRFF project is part of a multi-phase effort aimed at building a recovery infrastructure, and through engagement of key stakeholders, identify a MRF demonstration site for curbside collection testing in a community.  Additionally, the project aims to refine the collection process and to identify end markets for the “flexible plastic bale” that comes from processing recyclables.

For More Info

FPA members can access the presentation slides at by clicking on “Download Presentations from the FPA Fall Executive Conference.”