Closing the Loop on Industrial Plastics

GEMI is bringing together key internal / external stakeholders to foster dialogue on plastic waste challenges and explore business driven solutions to achieve sustainable management of industrial plastics across the life cycle, while creating value for stakeholders across the value chain.

Featured Project – Contaminated Plastics Recycling

GEMI’s Contaminated Plastics Work Group brings together companies from across the food processing value chain to develop business-driven solutions to sustainably manage industrial plastic film packaging materials contaminated with food residues, with a current focus on recycling of combo liners. The work group includes representatives of organizations from across the food processing value chain, including ExxonMobil Chemical, FMI – The Food Industry Association, JBS, Sealed Air, Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods, Winpak 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 to Get Involved

GEMI invites interested companies and industry associations to join this project and work with us to identify and develop business-driven solutions to key challenges noted in recycling industrial plastic film packaging materials contaminated with food residues. 

To learn more about how to get involved, please contact Kellen Mahoney at kmahoney @