Six of Canada’s largest plastic recycling groups have joined forces to create PRFLEX, an industry initiative that seeks to improve the recovery and recycling rates of flexible plastics collected from Canadian households.
PRFLEX consists of the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP), the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, Circular Materials, the Circular Plastics Taskforce (CPT), Éco Entreprises Québec and The Film and Flexibles Recycling Coalition.
Flexible plastics are commonly used in packaging, but are difficult to recycle. PRFLEX was created to increase the use of recycled content in plastic recycling with better sorting and recycling capabilities in Canada, according to a release.
Charles David Mathieu-Poulin, a PRFLEX steering committee member and a public affairs and sustainability manager at Transcontinental Inc., told SustainableBiz the primary objective of the group is to “create the perfect system for flexibles” and support the goal of having more recycled content in their packaging.
Why PRFLEX was founded
The concept of PRFLEX was sparked by a white paper published by CPT on the state of plastic recycling in Quebec and Canada. Its conclusions revolved around ideas needed for a recycling system, with many focusing on flexible packaging.
CPT started chatting with other Canadian associations, according to Mathieu-Poulin, and uncovered that recycling flexible packaging was on their radars. Its use is growing constantly, he said, but causes challenges at sorting centres and recycling facilities.
"So instead of working on this individually . . . we figured out it would have been a better idea to put all of our resources and energy and expertise together to try to find solutions for this type of plastic,” Mathieu-Poulin said.
Flexible packaging is "quite complex," he remarked. The flexible packaging for a shredded cheese package may be made from three types of plastic laminated together. While this extends shelf life, it also makes recycling difficult.
Sorting centres also face problems because flexible plastics are flatter and “more 2D, a bit more like paper and cardboard,” giving them a tendency to enter the paper recycling stream.
PRFLEX represents many groups and brands that produce packaging, Mathieu-Poulin said, with a fair representation of producers, recyclers and stakeholders in the Canada. All the founding PRFLEX members contributed financially to the group for consultants, discussions and technology options.
What PRFLEX will do
The consortium will help its six member groups reach their flexible plastic recycling goals by conducting an assessment of the industry's current state. This means answering questions over how much of the material is currently recycled and the main obstacles throughout the process.
PRFLEX would investigate how a “perfect system” for flexible plastic recycling would be created through discussions with industry players; identify solutions and technologies; and how to implement scenarios and best practices. PRFLEX would then figure out how to invest into and build the recycling system.
One scenario revolves around adopting technologies such as robotics and optical and manual sorters and determining optimal placement. Other questions to be answered are: What kind of sorting equipment would be needed to remove contaminants? How can members distinguish between flexible and rigid plastics?
The organization will not set its own targets for flexible plastic recycling, according to Mathieu-Poulin. Rather, its members would set voluntary goals or adhere to local government benchmarks.
Finding end markets
A critical mission for PRFLEX is finding an end market for recycled flexible plastics.
The aim is to address a dirty secret within the industry: most plastics are not recycled (including in Canada) and end up overseas in countries like China where they are likely dumped into landfills or incinerated. With China banning imports on plastic waste, Canada is scrambling for an answer.
PRFLEX’s members want to increase the content of recycled plastic in their packaging, which can help with the problem.
“If there’s a local buyer for the recycled plastic,” Mathieu-Poulin said, “then it pulls the entire system upwards, because the sorting centres will know that they have a buyer at the end . . . We are all looking to try to localize a bit more of the recycling and control it more.”
The goal is to not stop at sorting and recycling, “but to go all the way to the end to make sure that those recycled resins are actually used here in North America.”
The demand, technology and solutions are available, Mathieu-Poulin said, and PRFLEX wants to prove plastics are worth putting in the recycling bin. Achieving this will require attention and investment, so PRFLEX is hoping its efforts help it to that end.
PRFLEX is currently preparing to publish a study on flexible packaging recycling.
Mathieu-Poulin expects growth via new partners, or through collaboration with municipal or federal governments when it comes time to invest in new equipment.
Editor's note: The white paper was published by the Circular Plastics Taskforce, not the Canada Plastics Pact as previously reported. SustainableBiz regrets the error.