Scaling the recycling of film and flexible packaging with AI and automation

By Josh Hollin, vice-president of engineering, AMP Robotics

Very few households have curbside access for recycling film and flexible packaging today; yet, these materials form the fast-growing and second-largest valued packaging segment, behind only corrugated containers and ahead of bottles and other rigid plastic packaging. Close to 98 pounds of these materials, including grocery and storage bags, pouches, and wrappers, are found in the average US home each year.

Compounding the challenges presented by the proliferation of these materials, the recycling industry currently lacks the infrastructure to identify and separate film. Recovery within the existing materials recovery facility (MRF) infrastructure is estimated at 3%, meaning the majority of residential film and flexible packaging ends up in landfills. Moreover, these materials jam or gum up the equipment in recycling facilities that are not designed to handle them. It is rare to see a MRF that does not have a challenge or headache dealing with film somewhere; more typically, they are in multiple places in the system. Even 2-3% of film in the overall MRF streams can be unmanageable
to remove manually, often damaging equipment, necessitating downtime, and hindering recovery of recyclables.

Film contamination also exacerbates the industry’s labour strain because it requires manual sorters or technology to remove it early in the sorting process. Due to its light weight, film finds its way onto nearly every line in a recycling facility, degrading bale purity and leading to revenue loss or the need for additional downstream processing.

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