Updated: Jan 9, 2021
One of the major trends in consumer product packaging over the last decade has been the increase in use of "multi-layer pouches". Products formerly sold in packaging made from glass, rigid plastics, and metal cans have been increasingly packaged and sold in plastic pouches. Pouches offer a number of advantages over other types of packaging, such as longer product shelf life, lower packaging cost, higher space-efficiency for shipping and retail shelving, and often they are microwaveable. They also have other attributes favored by brand owners such as transparency, to allow the consumer to see the product, and larger surface area, to display brand imagery and product information.
However, along with the advantages came a significant disadvantage; multi-layer pouches were not recyclable. The pouches were made from multiple layers of different materials, which are not recyclable together, and are extremely difficult and uneconomical to separate. Where the previous packaging material had some other disadvantages, they had the advantage that in the end they could be recycled. The new packaging offers these other positive attributes, but in the end are destined for the landfill or incineration.
A number of companies have been working on trying to make pouches that have all the positive attributes, but are also recyclable. One of them is Dow, who has innovated a product they call Recycle Ready Technology. Recycle Ready Technology is a plastic film material that is made predominantly of polyethylene, the same material as single-use plastic grocery bags, and can be recycled via the same recycling stream. These pouches can be returned along with other recyclable plastic bags and film to bins located at retail stores. This is a groundbreaking technology that will hopefully lead to a broad movement from use of unrecyclable materials towards use of sustainable, recyclable materials in product packaging.
However, Dow's innovation by itself does not solve the sustainability, recyclability problem of thin-film plastic packaging. It is still inconvenient to return the pouches to retail stores, which is highlighted by the fact that only a few percent of bags and film are returned to the retail store take-back programs. After all the hard work of developing this new material, perhaps 95% of Dow's Recycle Ready packaging is doomed to end up in the landfill. What is needed is a more convenient way to recycle thin-film plastic packaging.
Thin-film plastic bags and multi-layer pouches can not be recycled conveniently in curbside recycling programs, or a transfer-station drop-off locations, because their thin, flimsy, form causes them to contaminate the downstream recycling collection and sortation process. When bags and film get to the Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) where recyclables are taken and sorted by commodity type, they tend to wrap themselves around the material handling equipment, causing costly plant shut-downs while workers remove the bags with box-cutting knives. Bags are just not designed to sort efficiently on automated material handling equipment.
One company has a solution to this problem, that will enable the convenient curbside recycling of thin-film plastic packaging including Dow's new Recycle Ready Technology packaging. Obaggo Recycling, located near Boston, Massachusetts, has developed a household appliance that allows the consumer to densify their plastic bags into a rigid disk, an object that will not cause shut-downs at MRFs, and can be recycled conveniently in the curbside bin or at transfer station drop-off centers. When a consumer finishes a loaf of bread, and has a clean/dry empty bag, or an empty pouch of Bear Naked granola (packaging made by Dow), they can place them in Obaggo's appliance. When it is full, or about once per week, the consumer will press a button, and 15 minutes later their plastic bag and film packaging will be (seemingly) magically turned into a recyclable disk.
So innovations in consumer packaged goods packaging material, combined with innovations in waste diversion technology, hold the promise of actually creating circularity for thin-film plastic packaging. We can get the best of both worlds; innovative materials for our products, plus sustainability for the environment and our natural resources.
Please visit Obaggo Recycling at our website: www.obaggo.com