It’s practically impossible to recycle old chip bags, detergent pouches and bubble wrap. These flexible items are too costly for waste collectors to sort and process, so most of them end up in landfills.
But not in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
On Monday, the borough launched a new recycling program that will allow 8,000 households to throw flexible plastic packaging into their curbside recycling bins with the rest of their cardboard, scrap paper and cans.
Local waste company J.P. Mascaro & Sons will sort and separate the materials at its Total Recycle facility and send the problematic plastics to companies that plan to make new products out of them ― things like drainage equipment and floor mats for cars.
Backed by a coalition of plastic manufacturers, retail giants and brands, this new effort is designed to divert tons of plastics from landfills. J.P. Mascaro plans to roll out the program to more Pennsylvania towns before the end of the year.
As awareness grows around plastic’s harmful environmental effects, people are puzzled about what to do with the 12 billion pounds of packaging they use yearly. Less than 10% of this material gets recycled, per the Environmental Protection Agency. But people really don’t want to send it to landfills or read about it ending up in the ocean.
Pottstown is the first municipality in the country to offer curbside recycling for all different types of flexible plastics. A few places across America have more limited programs ― where people can place shopping bags or a couple of types of packaging in the mixed recycling bin ― but nothing on par with J.P. Mascaro’s effort, said Susan Graff, vice president of sustainability at the consulting firm Resource Recycling Systems.
Other recycling programs for flexible plastics involve the consumer separating them from general recycling and bringing them to a special dropoff location, or mailing them to a company that recycles certain types of plastics. These recycling efforts haven’t exactly seen runaway success. Only 1.7% of plastic bags ever make it to a recycling facility, said Graff, who helped research and design J.P. Mascaro’s program.
Prior to launching this new effort, J.P. Mascaro was already receiving tons of flexible plastics from people who mistakenly believed they should recycle them. The company is now welcoming the materials after completing a significant upgrade to its sorting machinery, an expensive undertaking that may prevent other recycling plants across the country from following suit.
It would take millions of dollars and many years for other plants to roll out similar collection programs to the one J.P. Mascaro is leading.
For now, plastic packaging remains a thorn in the side for most recyclers and is not accepted by the majority of curbside recycling programs. It jams up older sorting equipment and contaminates valuable materials like paper.
“Flexible packaging is a problem [for facilities] that have the typical equipment that was installed years ago, before packaging evolved to lighter weight films to reduce food waste, material use and transportation efficiency,” Graff said.
Another problem with rolling out this program to more American towns and cities is the lack of demand for scrap packaging to make new products. There simply aren’t that many companies that specialize in this type of production, but there’s a huge supply of the materials, said Martin Bourque, executive director of Berkeley, California’s Ecology Center, which operates one of the oldest curbside recycling programs in the country. Bourque worries whether the Pennsylvania program can actually work at scale. It’s not clear, he says, whether there would actually be markets for scrap packaging if towns and cities all over the country started asking people to recycle it.
Bourque is also concerned that the partners backing this project ― Dow Chemical, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Nestle Purina and Target, to name a few ― are some of the very companies responsible for creating the plastic waste crisis in the first place.
“Their brands and shareholders have an incentive to tell consumers that their packaging is recyclable,” Bourque told HuffPost. “They really want this designed-for-disposal product to be recyclable, to have some kind of green veneer on it.”
Recycling alone cannot keep pace with the amount of waste we produce, conservationists warn. The best way to limit plastic pollution, some say, is to dramatically slash production of unnecessary packaging.
“We need to start moving towards plastic for absolutely necessary purposes. Not for single-use, not for things that we use for 10 minutes and throw away,” Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer for the environmental nonprofit Oceana, told HuffPost last year. “As long as we’re pumping it out as fast as we are, cleanup and recycling will never be enough.”
SC Johnson is a corporate partner of the recycling program described in this article. It has also provided support for HuffPost’s editorially independent series Drowning in Plastic and was not consulted for this piece.