What is the APR Design Guide for Plastic Recyclability? What happens after a package has been thrown in a curbside recyclable blue bin? What advancements in the US recycling infrastructure have you seen in recent years? Tune in to hear what Sandi Childs, Director of Film and Flexible Programs at the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) had to say.
00:00:21 Sara Januszewski
So, hello and welcome everyone to the Flexible Packaging Round Table. This is part one of a two-part series. Today we will be speaking with Sandi Childs, Director of Film and Flexible Programs at the Association of Plastic Recyclers, also known as APR about their organization and hopefully we will gain a better understanding of the work they do in the plastic recycling industry. And I am your host, Sara Januszewski. So welcome Sandi. It is so wonderful to have you on the podcast. Thanks for being here.
00:00:58 Sandi Childs
Sure, well, thanks for the invitation. I’m always glad to share as much as I can about film recycling. It’s not an easy topic.
00:01:05 Sara Januszewski
Definitely not. So, to get started here, can you tell our viewers and listeners more about the Association of Plastic Recyclers and what your role is?
00:01:17 Sandi Childs
Sure, the APR was started over 20 years ago when the plastic recycling industry was in its infancy, and they were looking for a voice. So, over the years we have joined the recyclers into our organization, there our primary members, but now we also have members from all parts of the value chain, including the brands, the converters, equipment suppliers as well as the recyclers. But our primary audience is still the recyclers. We represent about 90% of all the recycling capacity in North America. The plastics recycling capacity and our mission is to promote the viability of the plastics recycling industry and to spread the message that you really can’t have a sustainable plastic without recycling. There’s a lot of other things you can do to make plastics sustainable, but in the end, as we like to say there is no plastic that’s good enough to be thrown away. The four pillars that we work on are increasing supply, enhancing quality, expanding demand, and communicating value. So, to be economically viable plastics recycling companies need a clean source of adequate supply. They need both the supply to have a certain amount of quality as well as their process so that their goods can compete in the market place and then they need a packaging or a supply stream that’s designed to match their process, so those are the areas that we work on and in my role as Director of Film and Flexible Programs, I manage a film committee and the committee is a technical organization drawn from our total membership and we work on the design for recycling as well as other programs that APR puts out there specifically to film.
00:03:24 Sara Januszewski
Ok, and as a follow up to that I had a question, does the APR work with any other associations or organizations like the FPA or SPC? And do you guys have interactions with them, and if so, what does that look like?
00:03:43 Sandi Childs
That’s a great question, yes. And if we were doing a slide presentation, you would see a slide right now with arrows and circles and big fonts and little fonts. Because yes, we try to collaborate with every other organization in the sphere because it definitely takes that sort of collaboration. Everybody has their own little part of it. We work closely with SPC on the How2Recycle label and how to determine if materials or packaging qualify for that. We work closely with the US Plastics Pact specifically we are APR is the design for recyclability arm of the Pact, so they use our design guide to determine the thresholds for the packaging that they deem acceptable. We work with the ACC and other organizations to try to define the space in this marketplace for chemical recycling and then definitely Foodservice Packaging – FPI, ISRI – Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries. Just about every group you can think of APR wants a relationship with because it’s such a high priority endeavor right now that we all need to be marching to the same tune or similar.
00:05:09 Sara Januszewski
It takes a village for sure. And you just touched on it on it there, but can you further explain what the APR Design Guide is and how has the APR Design Guide made an impact? And do you see brands utilizing it?
00:05:30 Sandi Childs
The APR Design Guide is really our signature program, and the full name is the Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability and I guess to take everybody back a little bit. I would say in the late 1990s when APR was starting to pull together, I guess when APR was starting to give the plastics recycling industry a sense of credibility and a presence, and we were starting to involve the brands a particular large beverage brand was one of the 1st. The concept of designing a package to be recyclable was completely foreign. That had never entered the lexicon before and people were puzzled by it back then, but then it slowly started to make sense right, if you want the material or the package to be recycled it can’t contaminate the supply. It can’t hurt the process and so beginning there we started writing down and documenting what would be considered a recyclable package and really one of the first endeavors was the recognition of a one piece. Like I don’t know if you’re anywhere near as old as I am, you might remember Coke and Pepsi bottles with base cups.
00:06:56 Sandi Childs
Well, they were a nightmare for PT recycling. It was a different type of plastic and had a bunch of glue on it to hold it on there and I think APR was responsible for the switch. I think it was economics and better packaged design, but we did find that a one-piece PT beverage bottle is much more recyclable. It didn’t interfere with the process, it didn’t cost money in waste disposal, and it provided a better-quality PCR resin. So building on that we have also developed a set of test methods we shouldn’t. We were testing procedures on our website that companies can use to determine if a particular package is recyclable and to identify ways in which they can improve it. And our test protocols are a combination of standard ASTM testing for physical and chemical properties, as well as specialty recycling, testing, grinding and elutriation and washing and float sink and those sorts of procedures that recyclers use. Packaging and materials are encouraged to be tested along those criteria to determine their design potential. So right now, our design guide is very comprehensive. At this point we have design guidance for PET high density polyethylene, polypropylene films as well as some other resins and it definitely motivates brands. We probably have phone calls with brands several times a week to give them some direction as to where they need to go to use the design guide.
00:08:51 Sara Januszewski
Cool. It’s good to hear that brands are reaching out and really trying to make a difference in that regard. And next here, can you paint a picture and help our audience understand what happens after a package has been thrown in a curbside recyclable blue bin or a store drop-off bin?
00:09:13 Sandi Childs
Sure, and they’re very different. Our curbside and store drop-off are very different, and I guess I would start by saying that right now just yet a film package is not supposed to be put in a curbside bin or a curbside cart. We’re working on that. There are lots of organizations that are interested in developing technology and public education to help that happen, but right now, film packages go to store drop-off and other plastic packaging goes to curbside. And once a curbside cart gets rolled out to the street and put in the truck, it will go to what they call a Material Recovery Facility or MRF for short again. The way I sometimes explain recycling is that you have all these households putting bits and pieces of material, like all these little tiny piles and then the truck goes out there and collects all the little piles and makes it into one big pile. And then it goes to the MRF, where it’s dumped out and all this machinery and people end up sorting it back out into piles. Only they’re different. So, you have this mixed material stream which includes all kinds of plastics, but also you know glass and steel and aluminum and paper and cardboard goes to the MRF and then a combination of people and machines do some pretty complex sortation and quality control contaminant removal until at the end of all the conveyor belts and machines you have bales of quality materials that are destined for different markets.
00:10:58 Sandi Childs
So, from this mixed-up combination of materials that comes in, for example, you’ll have a bale of PET bottles, you’ll have a bale of milk jugs, you’ll have a bale of laundry detergent or colored types of bottles and then you know ground up glass, aluminum bales of paper and cardboard and they’re all going to different markets. So, in the case of plastic, most of the PET bottles. Well, I won’t say most. There’s probably about 1/2 and half split between markets that purchase these bales to make it into new bottles. A lot of the PET is made into new bottles and containers, but then the other market for PET is fibers because it’s really just polyester. So, fleece jackets like Patagonia fleece jackets, or if your dog has ever torn apart her bed, like my dog did yesterday. The fluffy bedding that comes out of it is kind of brownish or greenish fluff and that’s probably made of recycled PET as well. That might be the green or the lesser quality mixed color material, but it’s definitely polyester and it’s definitely derived from recycled bottles. Much of the recycled colored like detergent bottles and those will get made into pipe and then the milk jugs, there’s some really good work being done on that high density polyethylene growing into new food grade containers like new milk jugs, but then that can also go into pipe or rigid buckets and pails and stuff like that.
00:12:48 Sandi Childs
So that that pretty much covers the curbside stream, but when you take your flexible packaging to the store drop-off, it’s different it doesn’t go to the MRF. What happens is that bag of material from the front of the store where you might put your grocery bags or your beverage over wraps, bread bags, air pillows, all that gets tide up by an employee and taken to the back of the store and at the back of the store the workers also accumulate a lot of film plastics, there’s a lot of stretch wrap that comes on palleted goods. There might be large bags that are used to contain other loose products. There’s that material generated at the back of the store, and it will all be combined on a truck and usually sent back to the distribution center for whatever retailer we’re talking about. Then at the distribution center, those materials are mixed and baled, and kept there. And then a buyer will come to the distribution center directly and buy that material so there’s no MRF involvement. It stays cleaner because it’s not mixed with everything else and then separated. It stays separated. The buyers for that material, most of it goes into composite lumber like Trex’s or there’s a couple other brands that you can buy at Lowe’s or or big box stores. And that’s made from a combination of the film, polyethylene film and wood powder, from wood milling. But also a lot of the film and more and more of it is going into new film products and that would be construction film or Gaylord liners. Lots of trash bags which when you think about it, don’t have to be that high quality and as long as they hold your garbage and they don’t bust open, you know they’re ok, if they’re black or grey, so trash bags are made with recycled content from film, but that’s how that system works.
00:14:59 Sandi Childs
And marrying the two of them together, putting films into curbside is going to be difficult. Not so much on the market side, but on the, you know, making all the piles into one and then re-separating them. Once you mix film with anything else, it gets kind of dirty, it sticks to everything. It’s just hard to separate and one of the main functions of a MRF is separation and that’s just one of the hurdles that we have to overcome so I hope that was that answered your question. I’d encourage people to visit your local MRF if you if you get a chance.
00:15:46 Sara Januszewski
What advancements in the US recycling infrastructure have you seen in recent years? Additionally, what plans are underway to make further improvements so more materials like flexible packaging can be accepted?
00:16:02 Sandi Childs
I thought a lot about that question and there’s two areas where we’ve had some really good innovation and the first would be sorting and separation. And again, this is a lot of this is a MRF function separating a PET bottle from a milk jug for example, takes a new infrared sortation device that has to know how to separate them. But there’s also work being done on technology that can separate different grades of film. Different say, separate a polyethylene film from a polypropylene film or separate a multilayer pouch from bread bag. That’s just one simple type of plastic, so there’s been advances in sortation. There have also been some good advances in the marketplace and uses. The use of films back into new films has really increased as the molding and the extrusion technologies have been fine tuned to accept more post-consumer films and to sort out contaminants, like just dirt and glues and paper and stuff like that but the sortation is really a way that really helped things, we need more of it. I think another need in terms of film at some point, especially if we can move to curbside, the film recycling industry is going to need better washing systems. Right now, much of the film is not washed, it’s just ground up and molded into a piece of plastic lumber.
00:17:56 Sandi Childs
But if you’re talking about mixing it with everything else in the MRF, and if you’re talking about making a new film or bag or even a food grade package out of it, that’s going to have to be a lot cleaner, so washing and drying technologies. They’re beginning to be some investment in that, but again, we need more but I also don’t want to shortchange the companies that have done a lot of really good design work because there has been a lot of innovation in package design. For example, in labels for rigid containers, labels that can come off the bottle and be recycled on their own or floated away and disposed of to make the bottle material cleaner. There’s been a lot of work on that, and in the film area, the APR Film Committee has started a working group on labels on film packaging. We recognize there’s not that many, but things like mailing labels on packages you know on Amazon, or whoever is the package the company that wants you to get that package without the label coming off means that when you recycle it, the label is really hard to get off, so types of design investments are really starting to pay off as well.
00:19:24 Sara Januszewski
To conclude things here, I just wanted to thank you Sandi for joining us today. It was great to learn more about the Association of Plastic Recyclers. It was a pleasure having you on. Thanks so much.
00:19:35 Sandi Childs
Well, thank you Sara, I really appreciate the opportunity.