MRF Material Flow Study

Emily Tipaldo

In many cases, recycling can help improve a packages sustainability profile. In addition, when brand owners and package designers develop products that should be recycled mrfthere’s an expectation that correct sorting and recycling actually happens. But what exactly does correct sorting and recycling entail? How do these various materials flow once they enter the recycling facility? That’s what five national trade associations, representing a wide range of packaging types, set out to discover with the Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) Material Flow Study. Working together with the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR), Carton Council of North America (CCNA), Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) and the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) we wanted to learn more about how materials similar to the test samples and other study materials would flow through typical MRF environment. And which of the study materials, not currently accepted by MRFs, could potentially be recycled using existing MRF infrastructure. Finally, we wanted to begin to understand what sort of processes could be modified to allow effective recovery of sample materials.

The findings were not exactly what we expected. We discovered that the size and shape of a package plays a role in where they ultimately end up, even when consumers put them in the bin. In addition, various types of sortation processes have different effects on outcomes. For example, we learned that flattening or crushing items before they go into the recycling bin makes the materials more likely to be sorted incorrectly, winding up as residue. This is a far cry from the old days when the industry preached, “empty, rinse and crush.” This is because items tend to flow with similarly sized and shaped materials, so objects that have a distinct and more 3D shape have a better chance of being properly recycled. The study not only tested items that are already widely recycled, it also included less commonly recycled packages, things like cartons, foam polystyrene, and other non-bottle containers. Many of the lower volume materials weren’t sorted correctly due to the sorters’ lack of familiarity with the objects. Check out the full findings here.

Plastic on conveyor belt in recycling plant

Plastic on conveyor belt in recycling plant

Now that we have a good handle on how various types of packaging moves through a MRF, we can use the information to help boost recycling rates. There is certainly opportunity for improved recovery, and optimization can occur across the value chain- from packaging design to sortation technology. In addition, packaging is always evolving, becoming more diverse and lightweight. The Materials Flow study is a necessary first step in ensuring we recover the value of all packaging. Check out the Study Infographic for a look at the key conclusions.


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Package Design with Recyclability in Mind

Kara Pochiro

One of the biggest challenges facing plastic recyclers are containers that come through the stream that may have a negative impact on recycling. Both recyclers and product manufacturers often do not realize the implications of new products, until they have been brought to market, made it through the collection process, and contaminate the recycling stream. Certain types of labels, inks, closures, adhesives are just a few examples of packaging design features that can adversely impact recyclability, or simply cause an otherwise perfectly recyclable container to be landfilled rather than recycled. Either alternative leads to a yield loss for recyclers that are always looking for good, clean material.

cropped adCommunication is an integral part of that challenge. How can we shift the recognition process from the end of the line to the beginning of the design development stage?  How can recyclers communicate with container manufacturers and consumer brand companies about the importance of designing packaging with recyclability in mind? The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR), the trade association representing the plastics recycling industry in North America, is working to provide answers to those questions.  APR firmly believes that companies want to design packaging that is recyclable and sustainable, and has developed a variety of tools and programs to aid them along the way.

The APR DesignTM Guide for Plastics Recyclability is a technical document that details the potential for well-designed packaging to be reused and remanufactured into new products and enhances the economic viability of plastic recycling. It was developed for packaging designers and engineers.  The Executive Summary helps to ensure brand managers, sustainability and marketing managers, as well as other decision makers gain a basic understanding of the impact of packaging design on recycling. It can also serve as a quick reference tool for packaging designers and engineers.  Ultimately, we want all packaging professionals to have the APR website as a link on their desktops, so during the first stages of new product development, they can immediately determine if it aligns with current recycling technology.  This would be a huge step forward for recyclers.


The next step will be the release of the new and improved Interactive APR DesignTM Guide for Plastics Recyclability. The updated Interactive Guide will be completely web enabled allowing users to easily access the information pertinent to them at various levels of technical detail.  Additional resources will include photos, videos, and quick links to all of the APR documents and tests referred to in the Interactive Guide. This project is expected to launch in the fourth quarter of 2015.  APR is expected to announce the publication in a press release this fall.

Going even further, APR has recently embarked on an effort to bring these resources directly to packaging professionals through the APR DesignTM for Plastics Recyclability Training Program.  A variety of training options are available, including in-person and online sessions, and each session is developed to meet the specific needs of individual companies and their chosen participants. Beginning in late 2014, this program has continued to grow, with major brand companies reaching out to APR on a regular basis to schedule training sessions.

For more information on The APR DesignTM Guide for Plastics Recyclability, APR programs, or other issues associated with plastics recycling, visit


Good Guidance on Recycling Bags When Curbside Isn’t Working

Plastic Packaging Perspectives

sandi childsEditor’s note: This guest post is by Sandi Childs, Director of Film and Flexible Programs for APR, the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers

In case you missed it, Bowie Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC with a population of just over 56,000, announced that their curbside recycling program would no longer be accepting plastic bags. In a piece May 28, 2014 in the Maryland Gazette, the city explained that bags can damage recycling equipment and often blow out of curbside bins, which residents – who are trying to do the right thing – often don’t know. But what was striking, and ultimately encouraging, about Bowie’s announcement was that they didn’t leave it at that. Solid Waste Superintended Melvin Thompson went on to provide residents with a solution. He urged the citizens of Bowie to utilize their plastic bag take-back network, provided by retail stores, and directed them to the zip-code locator at to find a nearby store to drop-off their bags. Places like Lowe’s, Walmart, Target, Kroger and many other retailers have recycling bins at the front of the store to collect these polyethylene (PE) plastic bags. Even better, not only can residents recycle grocery bags, but also can include additional PE film packages such as bread bags, produce bags, dry cleaning bags, newspaper bags, as well as product overwraps around diapers, paper towels and bathroom tissue. We commend Bowie for providing residents with solutions oriented information.

By participating in retail recycling, residents supply recyclers with valuable material. According to a recent report by Moore Recycling, the recycling of postconsumer plastic film packaging surged 116 million pounds, or 11 percent, in 2013 to reach a reported 1.14 billion pounds. In fact, there’s been a 74% increase in polyethylene film recycling since 2005, when industry first began collecting the data.

This type of plastic goes in to a range of products including durable composite lumber for outdoor decks and fencing, home building products, lawn and garden products, crates, pipe, and film for new plastic packaging.

Steering residents to the retail network for plastic film collection is a great way to explain to residents that film plastics are equally recyclable as any material in their curbside bin. And, recycling these valuable products is as easy as a trip to your grocery store. There are more than 18,000 drop off bins across the country, and with national chain retail participation, there is almost always a drop-off location nearby. Bowie’s announcement solves their problem, without putting a dent in recovery efforts. That’s a message we’d love to see more municipalities “recycle.”

Sandi Childs is leading APR’s efforts to expand PE bag and film recovery to supply the needs of APR’s members, and to educate consumers about the recyclability of film plastics. Prior to APR, Sandi worked for Coca-Cola Recycling as a Recovery Development Manager for eight years. Sandi started her career recycling PET plastics, as Recycling Manager for Southeastern Container and then as Eastern Regional Director for NAPCOR. Sandi has a BS in Human Ecology from Ramapo College of New Jersey and a Masters in Environmental Science from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Talking Plastic Packaging Recycling and More

Steve Russell

One highlight of the National Plastics Expo 2015 was a sit down with Plastics News’ Joe Pryweller. We discussed some of the biggest issues we work on, as an industry—driving growth in recycling rates, marine debris, waste to energy technologies and, a new global endeavor for broader industry cooperation, the newly formed, World Plastics Council.  Check out the video here.

Recovering the Value of Plastic Packaging, One Bag at a Time

Erica Ocampo

Plastic recycling continues to grow year after year, but despite many efforts to increase overall recycling in the country, over half of our municipal solid waste ends up in landfills.

This reveals an opportunity to improve resource management and end-of-life options. For plastics specifically, it is possible to increase recycling rates and convert non-recycled
plastics into energy and other valuable products. By integrating plastics recycling with plastics-to-energy programs, we can divert more plastics from landfills and make the most of our resources.

Energy Recovery and the Energy Bag ProgramThe Dow Chemical Company’s Energy Bag Program  set out to do just that. The three-month pilot was designed to collect plastics not currently accepted by existing curbside recycling programs and convert those plastics into synthetic crude oil using pyrolysis (a process that heats the plastics without oxygen to convert them into a gas state, then cools and condenses the gases into products such as crude oil). Program partners included Republic Services, Agilyx, the Flexible Packaging Association and the city of Citrus Heights, California.

The Energy Bag Program sought to answer five specific questions:

  • Will people participate?
  • Will people follow the provided instructions and place the recommended non-recycled plastics (NRP) inside the Energy Bag?
  • Can the NRP be effectively collected using the existing curbside recycling infrastructure?
  • Can the NRP be effectively sorted at the recycling facility?
  • Is the NRP collected suitable for pyrolysis?
Energy Bag Program

Energy Bag in curbside recycling bin

The program used existing infrastructure to make it easy for residents and collection companies to participate. Nearly 26,000 residents of single-family households serviced by Republic Services in Citrus Heights, CA, were asked to place non-recycled plastic packaging and other plastic items not included in the city’s existing curbside recycling program into the provided bright purple Energy Bags. These plastics included items such as juice pouches, snack wrappers and cheese packages.

Once the bags were full, residents placed the purple bags into their recycling bins. The content of the recycling bins was collected and transported to Republic’s Newby Island Resource Recovery Park Recyclery. The purple bags were manually separated from the rest of the recyclables at the front end of the recycling line, and a random sample of their contents was characterized. Finally, the collected Energy Bags were bundled into an “Energy Bale” for shipment to Agilyx’s Tigard-based plastics-to-oil facility, where the non-recycled plastics were converted into synthetic fuel oil using pyrolysis technology.

Initial Results of the Energy Bag Program

During the three-month program, there were six collection cycles resulting in:

  • Nearly 8,000 purple Energy Bags collected
  • Approximately 6,000 pounds of typically non-recycled items diverted from landfills
  • 512 gallons of synthetic crude oil produced from the conversion
  • 30 percent citizen participation at some point during the pilot
  • 78 percent of citizens said they would be likely to participate if given another chance

As you can see, initial results of the program were extremely positive. Residents who participated in the pilot program placed the requested materials in the Energy Bags, and felt good about reducing their landfill waste. Their participation also helped reinforce which types of plastics can and should be recycled in Citrus Heights. (You can read full results on Dow’s website.)

Since the program launched, additional communities have expressed interest in starting their own pilot programs. Additionally, other companies have expressed interest in program partnerships. By conducting pilot programs and continuing to educate consumers about the energy potential non-recycled plastics hold, we could help increase landfill diversion of valuable materials and change the way we think about waste.

The Future of Recovering Non-Recycled Plastics for Energy

As with any resource management program, collaboration is key. Dow was fortunate to have valuable partners in the City of Citrus Heights, Republic Services, the Flexible Packaging Association and Agilyx, which were all committed to the pilot’s success.

However, this was just one pilot. We would like to see this type of program expand to communities across the country. To do that, we need everyone from communities, material suppliers, manufacturers, brand owners, retailers, the waste and recycling industry and non-governmental organizations to play a part.

Together, we can educate policy makers and the public about this untapped opportunity to divert valuable resources from landfills.

For more information about the Energy Bag Pilot Program or to learn how to bring the program to a community near you, view the full report  on Dow’s website or contact Erica Ocampo of The Dow Chemical Company at