GEMI’s Contaminated Plastics Work Group is seeking ideas, connections, and solutions with potential to address challenges in recycling post-industrial combo liner waste, a commonly used plastic film packaging material that is contaminated with food residues through the food production process.
What is GEMI
GEMI is an organization of corporate sustainability leaders dedicated to fostering global environmental sustainability excellence through the sharing of tools and information. GEMI has formed a Contaminated Plastic Work Group to foster pre-competitive collaborative cross-industry dialogue and develop business-driven solutions that can enhance domestic recycling and material management capabilities for contaminated post-industrial plastics while increasing value for stakeholders across the value chain. The work group includes representatives of organizations from across the food processing and packaging value chain, includingExxonMobil Chemical, FMI – The Food Industry Association, JBS USA, Sealed Air, Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods, and Waste Management.
What Are Combo Liners
A “combo liner” is a thin plastic liner that is used to line bulk storage / shipping containers (combo bins) used in the food and meat processing industry. The liner prevents food products from contacting other materials, ensuring safe and efficient storage and transport of the products through the production process. As such, combo liners are necessarily contaminated with food residues through their intended use. Combo liners tend to be single-layer polyethylene-based materials, primarily LDPE or LLDPE. Liners vary in size, color and thickness based on the application, with the average range between 1 – 3 mil. The liners are commonly used in chicken processing, pork processing, beef processing, pet food processing, and other food manufacturing plants.
Why Focus on Combo Liner Recycling
GEMI’s corporate work group members have established clear goals around waste minimization and zero waste to landfill and have found that plastic packaging contaminated with food residues is one of their most challenging waste streams to recycle today. Once these materials come into contact with food residues, they are generally no longer accepted by traditional recycling facilities due in part to concerns with sanitation, odors and vermin. While there are several types of contaminated plastics used in the food industry, GEMI has selected to focus on post-industrial combo liners as a starting point as 1) they are widely used across the industry, 2) the flow of waste materials tends to be concentrated around production / processing sites with fairly regular and predicable volumes, and 3) the liners tend to be made of single-layer materials that would be generally accepted by recyclers but for the contamination.
What are the Key Challenges to be Solved in Recycling Combo Liners
There are currently various technological and economic barriers to developing scalable end-to-end recycling solutions for these plastic film materials, such as material weight and volumes, storage and transportation processes, end market demand, USDA / FDA requirements for food contact plastics, and the current economics of waste and recycled-materials markets. Perhaps the greatest challenge though is the need for practical, scalable solutions to address the sanitation, odor and pest concerns posed by the food contamination itself for waste generators, haulers, processors, and potential end market customers of the recycled materials. This may include, but is not limited to:
- Post-Industrial Storage / Transportation – transportation and logistics solutions to enable efficient near daily pickups of food contaminated materials; solutions to allow for longer-term storage of contaminated materials to accumulate full truck load quantities
- Recycling Technologies – cleaning, disinfecting and deodorizing solutions to address food contamination concerns prior to introduction into traditional mechanical recycling processes; advanced recycling solutions able to accept contaminated materials as direct feedstocks without pre-processing; solutions for transport and storage of contaminated materials prior to processing
- End Market Development – solutions to address potential transfer of food odors to recycled pellets; solutions to verify recycled materials meet regulatory requirements and industry specifications for food contact plastics to allow for circularity; solutions to address additional end market needs
What Volumes May Exist
Concrete facility-level data on the volume of combo liner waste is currently limited as the contaminated liners are not typically source separated. The most common approach across the industry today is for the waste liners to be mixed with other non-recyclable facility waste streams and sent directly to landfill, or waste to energy where feasible, as there are few higher-use options available for these contaminated materials at present.
Based on a review of average film purchase volumes, GEMI estimates there to be an annual volume of ~36 million pounds of virgin combo liners used across US-based facilities in the GEMI network that could potentially be diverted from landfill if practical and economical recycling solutions were developed at scale. Accounting for food residues after use, we estimate the waste volume to be managed at the backend to be roughly double this amount. However, the opportunity for scale and impact of new solutions could be even greater than this in the long-term. There are many food and beverage processing plants in the US — over 30,000 according to the most recent comprehensive data in the Census Bureau’s 2012 Economic Census — and combo liners, together with other food contaminated plastic packaging materials, are in widespread use across the industry.
How Can You Help
We are inviting other organizations to share their ideas and expertise to help the companies participating in this work group to identify and explore potential solutions to address challenges in cleaning, disinfecting, transporting and recycling food contaminated post-industrial combo liner wastes. Does your organization have a technology / innovation that you feel would be useful in addressing these challenges? Are you aware of other organizations working on similar challenges that we may want to connect with? Do you have suggestions on potential opportunities to work together on this issue? Please let us know!
If you would like to share information for the consideration of the work group, please submit a brief outline of no more than one page to email@example.com. The submission should succinctly outline your thoughts on this topic at a high-level and should not include confidential business information. GEMI’s work group members will review and prioritize the information received and follow up with those submissions that they wish to explore further in evaluating the work group’s next steps.
Thank you for your consideration!