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The fastest growing consumer plastic isn’t being recycled. Two Philadelphia area companies hope to change that.

Though few consumers have heard of it, flexible plastic packaging is the fastest growing type of plastic in use in the U.S. And, as of now, it's not being recycled.

Isaiah Mayne and Rose Valentine (right) sort materials at the TotalRecycle plant in Birdsboro, Berks County.
Isaiah Mayne and Rose Valentine (right) sort materials at the TotalRecycle plant in Birdsboro, Berks County.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Up to 600 tons of curbside recycling get hauled each day into the TotalRecyle plant in Birdsboro, Berks County, where tens of thousands of milk jugs, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, and other items are sorted by hand or automatically by the latest electronic equipment from Europe.

But there are new things to sort at TotalRecycle: single-use plastic bags, sealable granola pouches, big pet food bags, and hundreds of other forms of flexible plastic packaging, or FPP.

Though not a household name, FPP represents the fastest growing form of packaging in the U.S. for a number of reasons. Lightweight, it uses less plastic than rigid packaging, has a smaller environmental footprint in production, and is more cost-effective. Busy consumers have increased demand for flexible to-go packs of food, as well as online food ordering and delivery.

But most of it is not being recycled as part of single-stream curbside bin collections by municipalities because sorting plants aren’t even equipped to handle it. At least 12 billion pounds of FPP generated annually in the U.S. ends up in landfills or is incinerated. Though FPP has been around for decades, its use is estimated to grow anywhere from 3% to 6% a year because companies are finding ever more uses for it, especially with multi-layer packaging like pouches.

The TotalRecycle plant, owned by J.P. Mascaro & Sons headquartered in Montgomery County, was key in a national pilot program that aims to recycle, reuse, and educate consumers about the material. Continuous Materials, with a plant in Philadelphia, turns the FPP into roofing material as part of the program.

“This package format is incredibly valuable,” said Sarah Lindsay, project manager for the Materials Recovery for the Future project that includes the two companies.

Research for the project, conceived by a group of companies involved in the plastics recycling chain, began in 2015 and included Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo., Nestlé, and Purina. It was administered by the nonprofit Foundation for Chemistry Research and Initiatives, established by the American Chemistry Council. The program’s goal was to prove FPP could be collected curbside, successfully sorted and baled by facilities such as TotalRecycle, and recycled into other uses like at Continuous Materials.

“That was proven,” said Lindsay. The next step is to bring the effort to a bigger scale and identify additional markets for the material.

Lindsay said FPP offers "superior production protection“ but manufacturers are aware that it’s not being recycled.

"We felt like this is an important packaging format, and want to see it get recycled and not end up in landfill,” Lindsay said.

Most sorting plants in the U.S. aren’t equipped to extract, bale, and ship FPP. The thin packaging tangles equipment, and there is little market for it, unlike plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which is represented by “1” inside the recycling symbol on the bottom of bottles.

And because FPP uses a variety of plastics, it’s harder to recycle.

Lindsay’s group had to find a recycler that could identify municipalities willing to get residents to add FPP to their recycling bins, then separate the FPP, and ship the bales to companies that can recycle it.

J. P. Mascaro & Sons, a solid waste and recycling services company, was selected in 2017 because it was willing to act quickly, and its new 75,000-square-foot Birdsboro plant was already using modern optical sorters, which are more capable of handling FPP.

“At the time, no facility was equipped to do this,” said Terrence Stinson, recycling coordinator at J. P. Mascaro & Sons. “We are pioneering something. The engineering is pretty remarkable.”

Stinson said the company installed four additional optical sorters in March 2019 and dedicated them to pulling out FPP. Optical sorters quickly scan material coming down a conveyor and figure out what type it is through “signatures” in its composition. The sorters use compressed air to blow the FPP onto a separate conveyor.

Stinson said it was the first time optical sorters were used for FPP on a large scale in the U.S. The equipment performed well from the start, he said, getting about 80% of the FPP from the stream. That is now higher after tweaks.

“Getting community engagement was a big task,” Stinson said, adding that people are “creatures of habit.”

The company brought aboard nine municipalities to add FPP to their recycling stream. Only municipalities that used modern, lidded recycling containers were included. Lids keep lightweight plastic from flying around in the street, and prevent recycling from getting soaked by rain.

Lower Providence Township in Montgomery County signed on. Donald Delamater, township manager, said the effort to get residents to begin recycling FPP was painless, has been underway for about a year, and will continue.

“The responses we received from residents were that they were happy we were doing something like this, and that it was a benefit to the environment,” Delamater said. “It seemed logical that if it’s plastic, it should be recyclable.”

Some of the FPP is baled and shipped to the Continuous Materials plant on Bleigh Avenue in Philadelphia; Waste Management, the national waste handling firm, is located next door and has a stake in Continuous Materials.

Marc Lower, Continuous Materials’ vice president of sales, said FPP is mixed with fiber extracted from paper to produce 4-by-8-foot sheets of the company’s commercial roofing called Everboard.

Lower said reusing the material removes billions of pounds of plastic that would have gone into landfills. The roofing lasts 13 to 17 years, and can be ground down and recycled again.

But Lower said that for the FPP project to be successful, it will have to work across the U.S. That could take years.

“It’s still a test,” Lower said. “But it looks promising.”