What story does your recycled plastics tell consumers?

By Tom Szaky in Sustainable Packaging on May 12, 2017

If branding is all about telling a story, generic post-consumer recycled content may be lacking in that department. Sourced from recycled material suppliers selling resins aggregated from one or many municipal recycling facilities, generic recycled materials (that is “rPET” or “rHDPE”) contain plastic from many different types of products and packaging, come from any number of places and have no traceability back to the original product or where the material was generated or collected.

Identifying the key values that drive significance with customers and consumers is a huge factor in crafting a narrative. Many companies branding for sustainability have publicly stated goals and have made commitments to increase the amount of post-consumer recycled (PCR) resins in their product packaging. This is because one of the most important factors consumers cite in their selection of eco-friendly products is the use of recycled content

Branding shapes public perception and enables consumers to make connections. It is the critical human element distinguishing businesses and brands from competitors in the marketplace. But one of the greatest challenges companies face today is creating and effectively communicating a narrative that inspires trust and demonstrates authenticity. Today’s consumer is highly discerning, increasingly concerned with things like supply and production chain sustainability and product recyclability, and highly allergic to ethical claims that are inauthentic, vague or misleading.

What kind of story does a company tell by using generic “recycled materials” that the consumer cannot connect to?

Enter “storied plastics,” PCR with a history. Recycled resins sourced by waste stream and sorted by material type (that is “recycled beach plastic” or “recycled cosmetics packaging”), “storied plastics” carry a narrative and can be traced to point of origin. At my company TerraCycle, we specialize in the capture and collection of common but difficult-to-recycle streams like personal and beauty care packaging, juice and snack pouches, water filters and more, putting us in the unique position to supply to manufacturers dozens of different storied plastics, sourced from our many collection streams.

The models we have developed to collect traditionally non-recyclable waste include free, nationwide programs, in-store retail activations and city-wide programs, to name a few. Because TerraCycle has found that nearly every waste stream can be recycled for use in new products, the selection of storied plastics available are varied, the possibilities endless. But what these resins all have in common is that they have the critical elements that people can connect with and want to talk about because we engage directly with the collectors and collect pure waste streams.

There remains a “green-gap” between turning changing attitudes into actions despite consumers increasingly reporting that they are more likely to patronize companies committed to making positive social and environmental impacts. Cost is one prohibitive barrier to more sustainable purchases and habits since many consumers are of the opinion that eco-friendly products cost more money. The thing is, they often do—sustainably sourced content, quality materials and more arduous, but quality, production processes tend to drive up costs. Thus, to market sustainability in a successful way, consumers must see sustainable products as comparable or exceeding standard market products in the functional, emotional and social benefit areas.

Many consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies today are using PCR, but using storied plastics provides the exceptional opportunity for manufacturers and major brands to differentiate and command a premium. The traceable, “origin story” component of material comprised of products and packaging people have interacted with in their own lives can be communicated clearly and effectively to today’s consumer, who will find value in their ability to relate to the product and the story behind it.

Consumers seek reward by buying products and using services that they believe say something about who they are. It is possible to make authentic, lasting impressions in your sustainability branding and circular business practices through the use of storied plastics. Recycling is one of the most accessible and easily understood aspects of sustainability, and most consumers have experience with the process, but have little connection to where their recycled items go; storied plastics provide the opportunity for brands to be that connection.

 

Author Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, published a book called “Make Garbage Great” in July 2015 and is the star of the television show “Human Resources.”

 

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