It was considered the future by Benjamin Braddock’s neighbor in “The Graduate” and, in fact, plastic has in its very short life cycle taken over the world. Primarily derived from crude oil through processes known as polymerization and polycondensation, various polymer chains—each with different properties, structure and size—come together as virgin plastic. National Geographic reports that half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years, with production expected to top 900 billion tons annually by 2050.
Unfortunately, a tremendous portion of plastics become waste. A 2017 study out of the University of California Santa Barbara looked at the magnitude of plastics production and waste. They found that by 2015, humans had produced 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste, 79 percent of which accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. (Science Advances. 19 Jul 2017;3(7):e1700782. DOI:10.1126/sciadv.1700782) In fact, the majority of plastics is used in packaging, affording manufacturers and marketers the very real opportunity to make change.
One massive opportunity to improve packaging sustainability and support recycling infrastructure is to source PCR—or post-consumer resin. The technical term for recycled plastic, PCR is an increasingly viable option for single-use packaging with a smaller footprint. To produce PCR, spent plastic waste is collected from commercial and residential recycling programmes; sorted; cleaned and sterilized; ground and pelltised; and then can be repurposed into new applications.
What are the benefits of PCR?
- PCR reduces virgin plastic consumption
- PCR reuses recovered plastics such as single-use items
- PCR helps support recycling infrastructure and investment by providing recyclers end-markets for their materials
- The use of PCR greatly reduces landfill dumping
- PCR can be recycled again for new manufacturing
- PCR plastics don’t require any further depletion of new fossil fuels
- Using PCR packaging helps brand owners; show consumers they care about the impact of their product packaging on the environment
- The use of post-consumer resins helps forge a circular economy.
Source: Raepak Ltd (UK)
In fact, the use of PCR is on the rise in packaging, according to several suppliers. “Requests for availability to supply post-consumer content bottles has taken a marked uptick, especially in the consumer packaging category,” says Sue Benigni, director of sales, nutraceuticals, Comar. “Within consumer packaging, the majority of the inquiries have come from our customers in the Nutraceutical, Personal and Homecare, and Food and Beverage markets.”
Consumer awareness of the challenges with virgin plastics and environmental considerations are among the driving forces. Shoppers even indicate a willingness to pay more for products and services from companies committed to making a positive environmental impact, with 72% of Gen Z shoppers and 51% of Baby Boomers agreeing with that sentiment. (“The Sustainability Imperative,” Nielsen 10-12-2015.)
Challenges with PCR
Unfortunately, there are still significant challenges related to the use of PCR, including cost considerations, availability, regulatory compliance, and consumer acceptance of finished packages.
“Even though it is a rapidly growing area, there are still limited suppliers able to provide quality biomaterial packaging, post-consumer recycled and biodegradable materials for use with sustainable cosmetic products,” says Michelle Leef, general manager, EcoTan. The company has focused its efforts on increasing and maximizing the use of PCR materials as it converts to zero waste.
Similar sentiments were voiced by Peter Sundt, European Association of Plastics Recycling & Recovery Organisations (EPRO). “The market is not functioning because demand is [outpacing] supply,” he says. “It’s quite costly to collect and sort and needs to compete with virgin plastics for super-efficient oil fluids. With virgin plastics being so cheap, it’s very difficult. Economically it’s hard to compete because it’s expensive with efficient take back systems for consumers, sorting, and into process.”
Even as demand in general is outpacing supply, there are additional considerations for companies the food and beverage sector. The safety of food contact materials is top of mind for regulatory agencies across the globe. In the European Union, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) offers guidance on plastics in general, and has rules in place to authorize the processes used to recycle plastics. Similarly, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assesses processes used to recycle plastics on whether it will yield plastic suitable for F&B applications.
However, Kate Bailey, policy and research director of Eco-Cycle, notes there is still a good deal of runway around the use of PCR in the F&B space. “There are some restrictions on food-grade PCR that limit how much can be used in packaging that is in direct contact with food,” she comments. “However, for most brands, there is ample room to add more PCR without bumping into those limits.”
Addressing the design element
Another additional consideration is whether plastic packages can be designed to be recycled and turned into PCR. Bailey comments these can include issues related to non-recyclable labels, colorants, adhesives and more. A new European partnership is looking to accelerate that process with a new initiative called RecyClass. Developed under the auspices of Plastics Recyclers Europe, which represents the voice of European plastics recyclers, RecyClass is looking to support the full value chain to achieve a higher level of recyclable plastic packaging.
Fabrizio Di Gregorio, technical manager for Plastics Recyclers Europe, explains that the organization launched the initiative to support the plastic value chain, seeking to collaborate and support manufacturers. He says: “The first step to achieve the tremendous targets is to work altogether, not just as recyclers but altogether on a design for recycling where design is the first element to improve the recyclability of the packaging and pledge in the market in the next years a high quality recyclate that can replace the virgin materials.”
The RecyClass initiative includes three linked protocols related to recyclability evaluation, design for recycling, and a free online tool that allows companies to get an assessment of the recyclability of their package design and guidance to make it more recyclable while meeting certain parameters. Product certification is also included along with the report, and assessments can be further carried out by an independent laboratory before go-to-market.
“Everyone has the opportunity today to make a reliable test with the protocol and to have more recyclability,” Di Gregorio explains. “This is the right way to demonstrate that innovative packaging can go on the market with approval of all the value chain about their real recyclability. Doing this exercise will improve the design of the plastic packaging by balancing its functionality and marketing behavior with the recyclability.”
The tool allows companies to answer a series of questions about the product, proposed package, market and target consumer. The results are provided in an easy class ranking (between an A and F), and adjustments can be made to improve the ranking. Certification and clear communication can further assist companies in developing appropriate messaging for consumers.
“Consumers may want to avoid plastics, are quite skeptical of plastic and have a lot of confusion around ‘recyclable’ or ‘30% recycled material’,” Sundt says. “When do we talk recycled content vs recyclability? Brand owners should help consumers understand what it means.”
In fact, the education piece is a key consideration, according to Bailey. “Consumers have a hard time understanding what happens to their recycling after it leaves their house, and also why recycling matters,” she says. “The more manufacturers can talk about why recycling matters, and how to do it right, the more we can help educate the public. Labeling is also a key opportunity. Consumers look on the product to see if it’s recyclable; if the product isn’t recyclable, it’s still great to put the not currently recycled label on there to help reduce contamination in the recycling bins.”
Ultimately, companies have an opportunity to act from the design of their package to the packaging itself, helping empower consumers to easily recycle packaging and make choices that support the circular process.