What does mono-material mean? What are the benefits of using mono-materials for brands & consumers? Is there any government legislation that can potentially have a positive impact on the recycling industry and could help expand the type of material that can be accepted and recycled? 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
Hello and welcome everyone to the Flexible Packaging Roundtable. This is Part 2 of the two-part series today. We are continuing our discussion with Sandi Child, Director of Film and Flexible programs at the Association of Plastic Recyclers, also known as APR and I am your host, Sara Januszewski. Thanks for being here Sandi. Are you ready to hop right into the questions?
00:00:46 Sandi Childs
Yes, I am Sara!
00:00:50 Sara Januszewski
To start, what does mono material mean and from a brand perspective, is it worth it to use a mono material like a store drop-off pouch?
00:01:01 Sandi Childs
I’m really glad you asked that question because that really gets to the heart of APR’s design guide for plastics recyclability. Because we understand that there are two things to think about when you’re designing a plastic flexible package and the 1st and really a very important consideration is, is it functional? If you’re designing something that wants to protect the contents, protect some food, some pet food, whatever it might be, and keep the contents fresh. Sometimes it makes sense to use different polymers, and so a multi-material pouch, for example, for a moist dog treat or granola might give great performance, but the other thing to think about is the recyclability of that package once it’s empty. And you do use a mixture of polymers or a multi-material pouch. You could be compromising the recyclability of that package. So that’s always going to be a bit of a conflict there, but we’re learning at APR through the work that our members are doing that in many cases you can use a simple mono material pouch and still build in
00:02:32 Sandi Childs
the barriers or the whatever the factors are to protect the contents. Our design guide speaks to a mono material which is polyethylene for a pouch or flexible packaging. But we also recognize that polyethylene is a really great material because it’s almost infinitely customizable and we recognize therefore in our design guide that a package that’s 90% or more polyethylene. So 90% or more by weight of that mono material is the best design package, but in that 90% you can include certain copolymers or certain types of modified polyethylene’s that might give a barrier property or some product protection, but there’s still enough of a polyethylene content in that copolymer that it can still be considered a mono material and we have guidance on certain ionomers. We’ve looked at EVA and other ethylene copolymers that are fine. So, they don’t render the package non-recyclable because they’re there so that’s what we’re working with our members to really promote in terms of technical innovation. How can that mono material polyethylene package be enhanced or modified or designed using new technology to still give functional performance and yet be compatible with recycling. There are certain blends or combinations of polymers however, that do render that polyethylene package non-recyclable. For example, if you bond polyethylene to PET or polyester. It can’t be separated once you bond film package, a couple of polymers together with the laminating adhesive, whatever bonding might occur. You can’t separate them so that renders the package non-recyclable. Also, too much polypropylene in a polyethylene pouch or bonded to a polyethylene package can interfere with the recyclability as well.
00:05:08 Sandi Childs
To sum it up, at APR we encourage a mono material polyethylene as a starting point. And the simpler the package, the better. And we’re constantly working on design guidance for new polyethylene material constructions and our converter partners and our recycler members work together to make sure that we still promote innovation in the packaging industry, which is incredibly important, but we also work on keeping the packages innovative and simple and fully recyclable.
00:05:48 Sara Januszewski
Right and you started to touch on it there, but would you like to add anything else around what the benefits of using mono materials are for brands and consumers?
00:06:01 Sandi Childs
Well, for sustainability goals the more recyclable packages are the better. So, a mono material package will always go to the top of the line or the head of the line when it comes to being evaluated for recyclability, but we also provide a number of testing protocols where new technologies can be tested and measured against performance thresholds to make sure that they’re also fully recyclable, so I think the benefit is that you get that consumer acceptance. I saw recent data where at least 25% of consumers are aware of the importance of designing a package to be recyclable or where you know they don’t know the details, obviously but if they know that something is recyclable, they’re happy. So, I think that’s a huge benefit to brands. Is being able to tell that story.
00:06:58 Sandi Childs
But also, it can be less expensive to use amount of material package and if you start looking forward where at some point there will be food grade recycled content available that’s made from film. Essentially, brands are going to be buying what they put in the marketplace, so it comes full circle and that’s the circularity that everybody is aiming for. So, a mono material, well designed package that moves smoothly through the value stream all the way through the consumers hands, the recyclers, hands and back into a new PCR or post-consumer resin to be used by the brand again. The more we can accelerate that and promote it the better. So, it’s extremely important to try to design packages to be a mono material or to innovate so that multi material packaging can be the components can be separated or can be compatibilized. There are some compatibilizers on the market and research going on there so I think overall for everybody it’s extremely important that we look at that mono material and what we can do to keep it simple.
00:08:26 Sara Januszewski
Right and from a recycler or reclaimer perspective, is it worth it to accept mono materials like a store drop off pouch and what changes in their process are necessary and what type of investment will that take?
00:08:44 Sandi Childs
That’s a really interesting, I guess evolution of our industry because store drop-off material has historically all pretty much all gone into composite lumber, which is great I mean, composite lumber is a great product and people make decks out of it and it’s really an awesome product, but there’s more and more investment going on in circularity for film packaging, which means that companies want to take the film package or the flexible package and recycle it back into another bag or another pouch. And make it more circular and the mono material is important here because it’s a very thin margin industry and it’s only starting to really take off. So, we have many recycling members who are making investments in washing systems, in sortation to see if more and more of that store drop-off material can be made back into new packaging and just adding to the market capacity. Not taking anything away from composite lumber but adding to the market capacity with more circular packaging where a store drop-off pouch can go through a recycling facility and be made into a PCR that’s food grade and good enough to go back into another pouch.
00:10:20 Sandi Childs
Right now there is no food grade material available for that sort of circularity. The FDA has not issued any letters of non-objection for that circularity in film because there’s just not enough information available yet on how the material is washed or what’s mixed together. When you look at the stream and the non-objection letters for things like PET that have been going on for 20, 25 years, so they just have a lot more experience but at APR, we’re encouraging that sort of market investment just to expand the number of end uses for that material. So currently store drop-off material definitely has a robust market. Back into composite lumber or more and more into things like Gaylord Liner film into trash bags, into construction film, furniture wrap. There’s boat wrap now being made of recycled store drop-off material, probably mixed with a lot of stretch wrap too, but it’s a really important stream for the recyclers, because more and more packaging is moving in that direction. Out of rigid containers into more flexible packaging, so it’s just part of the continuum of innovation to make sure that that store drop-off material continues to have values so that the stores continue to keep recycling it, they keep taking it from customers and then the customers can know that yes, those bags and bread wrappers and pouches that I put in that bin are definitely going to get recycled into a good product.
00:12:17 Sara Januszewski
And next here, is there any government legislation that can potentially have a positive impact on the recycling industry and could help expand the type of materials that can be accepted and recycled?
00:12:33 Sandi Childs
That’s an interesting question. There’s a lot of attention right now in the United States, actually, in all of North America towards something called Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR for short. And in its simplest form at EPR, makes the producer of the package responsible for the end of life of that package and builds in incentives to make it recyclable and disincentives to make it disposable. So that’s it in a nutshell. EPR has been popular in Europe for close to 20 years, so there is experience with it in Europe, but it’s kind of new here in the US. We’re a lot different than Europe. Our demographics are different from you know, we were a lot bigger, bigger population, but it definitely has some promise because essentially, if you set a fee that a company has to pay for putting a non-recyclable or badly designed package in the marketplace that money from the fee can be used to improve the recycling infrastructure and at that at some point then that package might be recyclable. Or it incentivizes that company to change that package to stop paying the fee.
00:14:14 Sandi Childs
So, it’s meant to be both a driver towards better designed, more recyclable packaging that sort of the stick but then the carrot part of it is that the funding can provide investment to the recycling industry, and one of the things that we really need for film and flexible recycling in the US is better sortation and better washing systems and especially the washing systems. If we’re starting to talk about things like couches that might have peanut butter or dog treats or even cheese and put those packages in the recycling stream, they’re going to have to be washed. And as I said, it’s a thin margin industry, so the cost of washing and especially drying and especially today with energy prices the way they are is pretty substantial.
00:15:14 Sandi Childs
So, if there’s a way that fees can be set and set fairly and then that money can be used as a match or as direct funding to improve the system, that could sort of help everybody out a little bit. It helps the landfills not have to take as much material, it can help with reducing litter if more of those packages are recycled, and then it helps the recycling industry to be healthier financially and make more investment on their own, so it might be just a little bit of funding that they need that that puts them on a solid footing. So, then they can go and invest on their own as well. And usually, well, I guess the desirable situation for an Extended Producer Responsibility system is that a group of various stakeholders decides how much the fees should be, and then what they should be spent on the other end, so it’s not just a government agency that’s deciding that on their own.
00:16:28 Sandi Childs
Because sometimes they they’re not well informed and without a stakeholder group they are not going to know where the best investments are, so the stakeholder groups are very important in making the decisions on how to invest that funding from the fees. So, I guess at APR we support well thought out EPR proposals as long as they solve the problem and I guess by solve the problem I mean, as long as they work to help the recycling industry to boost the financial performance, to increase the supply, to improve the quality of the recycled material that comes out of the facilities. We want it to be directed to the recycling industry and addressing their needs. And in order to do that, we have to have well-informed, well-educated elected officials. APR does a lot of work in state, government, legislatures and even at the federal level not necessarily pushing any particular policies, but making sure that the elected officials are educated as to how the system actually works and what the consequences are of these policies that are being tossed around so whenever you’re talking about something that’s environmental or that involves plastics, as we all know, things can get a little bit emotional and certain people have certain agendas.
00:18:12 Sandi Childs
So, APR wants to make sure that that any government action is well thought out, it’s grounded in data and objective information and so I think if those parameters can be met, then the answer is yes, there is a place for good public policy in improving the recycling system. I’ve been doing this for a while and I can say that right now there is more interest across a broad range of stakeholders to make sure that if we have this sort of legislation, it is going to improve the industry and not be punitive or not, just be a method for collecting more money for the government, but actually improve the industry. I think we’re optimistic.
00:19:10 Sara Januszewski
Thank you for answering all my questions and I mean to wrap it up here, I really just wanted to end by saying is there anything else that you would like to add?
00:19:23 Sandi Childs
I would just say that the issue of flexible packaging is really exciting right now because it’s a newcomer to the plastic recycling industry and it’s very challenging. It’s nothing like PET, which compared to flexible packaging, PET is so easy, it’s just PET but again, polyethylene, like I said, is so customizable, and then you have other flexible materials and the technical abilities of this material to provide good packaging are amazing, but the recycling industry is what it is right now.
00:20:15 Sandi Childs
And we just need to get to work together to design better packaging to increase the supply of material to make sure that we’re all participating in a rising tide and everybody’s boat gets floated, so it’s an exciting time. The industry is changing, I know there’s a lot of pressure on package manufacturers and brand owners, but the best way to make sure that you’re not hurt by what’s going on is to participate and to get involved at APR and our film committee or on our policy and communications end of things and stay informed and provide your point of view because like I said, APR is a collection of stakeholders from the entire value chain and everybody’s input is really important, so thank you.
00:21:14 Sara Januszewski
Wonderful, yeah. Thank you, Sandi, for joining us for this two-part series. I think this was filled with tons of useful information. So, thank you again.
00:21:24 Sandi Childs
Well, I hope so. I hope it’s useful, and again, if you need anything else let me know Sara, thank you so much for the opportunity.