Shrink wrap, shopping bags, bread bags, potato chip bags, food storage bags, drink pouches, bubble wrap and so much more.
For years, none of these kinds of flexible plastic have been recyclable. As a result, it ends up in landfills or, even worse, the ocean and the stomachs of the creatures who live there.
But a nationwide effort by manufacturers and retails to divert all kinds of flexible plastic is underway and the first place in North America that it will be tried is right here in Pottstown.
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That's because Pottstown was chosen by J.P. Mascaro and Sons as the place to start, in large part because its recycling bins have lids and it is close to the company's recycling sorting facility in Exeter Township, Berks County.
After a nationwide solicitation, Mascaro was chosen by an industry-sponsored research collaborative that includes such business giants as Procter & Gamble, Target, The Dow Chemical Company, PepsiCo, Nestlé USA, Nestlé Purina PetCare, Amcor, The Walmart Foundation, KraftHeinz, and the American Chemistry Council.
The collaborative is called "Materials Recovery for the Future, and awarded a $2.6 million grant to Mascaro to install sophisticated optical sorting equipment at its TotalRecycle facility to make the recycling of FPP possible.
In a prepared statement, Joseph P. Mascaro Sr., the company director of sustainability, said, "Our company is thrilled to have been chosen by the MRFF for this Pilot Program; we have purchased and installed all the new automated optical sorting equipment needed to recycle FPP; and we are excited to add FPP to the Borough of Pottstown's existing curbside recycling program."
"Pottstown was a great choice for us," said Frank Sau, director of communications for Mascaro. "There are a list of requirements for the program and Pottstown met all those requirements. It will be the only community in the country where we can tell people, just throw those things in loose, we'll do the rest."
But before they get thrown in the bin, they have to be clean and dry, said Sau. "Otherwise, you can contaminate the load, it won't get sorted properly and it slows everything down," he warned.
In fact, Pottstown residents will be getting a lot of pointers. On Friday, the company put information in the mail to the community outlining how the program will work, and what new materials can be added to the recycling stream.
And within the next two weeks, crews will begin putting stickers on Pottstown's trademark blue recycling bins that outline what new materials can now be recycled, said Sau.
"There's a huge learning curve for us and our customers," said Sau.
And there is always room for improvement.
"We've had people put aluminum bats, golf clubs, engine parts in the recycling. You wouldn't believe some of the stuff. It's important that this be done right," said Sau.
Earlier this month, Pottstown Borough Council awarded a three-year $8 million contract for trash collection to Mascaro that will also include weekly pick-up of one bulk item per customer.
The key to all this is the end market. Harder plastics become an economic resource after a method for converting it into plastic decking, like Trex, and other building materials
"By partnering with J.P. Mascaro and Sons, we've been able to make the TotalRecycle facility into a 'living lab' for flexible packaging recovery. Resident participation will be the next step in our research journey as we discover the best ways to fully integrate flexible plastic packaging into the recycling system," said Steve Sikra, director of sustainability for Procter & Gamble.
"This research with the MRFF collaborative is part of Procter & Gamble's efforts to address two of the world's most pressing environmental challenges — finite resources and growing consumption," Sikra said.
"By recycling clean, dry, and empty flexible packaging, Pottstown residents will help demonstrate a model of how a wider variety of packaging can be recycled into high-quality products," said Susan Graff, vice president of Global Corporate Sustainability for RRS.
It is expected that the pilot program will generate important data to show interested municipalities that FPP recycling is possible and economical, and that there is a market for the rFlex end product.
"We think there's a end user. This is a resource and it shouldn't just be thrown away," Sau said.