Environmental issues for plastic packaging may have taken a back seat during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s only a matter of time until the topic turns white hot again.
A subset of the plastic environmental conversation is recycling. Confusion runs rampant among consumers as to what can and cannot be recycled — and in what manner. Interestingly, this confusion is not limited to consumers. Many brand owners, particularly smaller ones, don’t have in-house knowledge to help guide them.
To help move the knowledge needle, we’ve put together five areas to explore when trying to determine if your flexible package is recyclable. Some might appear to be basic for industry veterans, but for others who need to ease into the issue, these five areas should help you expand your knowledge base.
1. Determine your film’s specific structure. Although it’s a basic question, there are those who haven’t taken the time to really understand their “film sandwich.” Is it a monolayer, coextrusion or lamination? Or even a material laminated to a coextrusion? What are the layers made from? Are there some aspects of the structure that are recyclable and others that are not? Is there a way to modify the structure so that it is readily recycled? (More about that later.)
2. Find a recycling pathway. Is your material readily recycled via curbside bins or does it have to be taken to a different location (such as a grocery store drop-off) in order for it to be processed? If your brand is trying to promote recyclability to consumers, you really need to understand the back end. Are you asking them to put the material in a recycling bin or do they need to transport elsewhere? Understand your materials recycling journey before you make a claim that is likely to be inaccurate.
3. Review the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability. The guide is positioned as “the most comprehensive resource outlining the plastics recycling industry’s recommendations in the marketplace today.” An item is “recyclable per APR definition” when the following three conditions are met:
- At least 60% of consumers or communities have access to a collection system that accepts the item.
- The item is most likely sorted correctly into a market-ready bale of a particular plastic meeting industry standard specifications, through commonly used material recovery systems, including single-stream and dual-stream municipal recycling facilities (MRFs), plastic recycling facilities (PRFs), systems that handle deposit system containers, and grocery-store rigid plastic and film collection systems.
- The item can be further processed through a typical recycling process cost effectively into a postconsumer plastic feedstock suitable for use in identifiable new products.
4. Research the How2Recycle label program. It was created by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to prevent valuable recyclables from reaching landfills, as well as reduce confusion by creating labels that clearly communicate recycling instructions (curbside collection, at a store drop-off location or if they should check with their municipality for that specific packaging material. It also provides simple, product-specific instructions, such as “empty before recycling,” “rinse and replace lid” or “empty and reattach pump.”
5. Reach out to your suppliers and their resin suppliers. With resin technology and film manufacturing capability constantly evolving, last year’s films structure may not be the best approach. Companies are constantly working on ways to make the entire structure more readily recyclable in curbside streams. Although many brand owners typically don’t reach down to the resin level, it’s in your best interest to work with your film supplier and its resin supplier to ensure that your package meets the desired environmental attributes.
Author: Dan Durham is the director of technical client services at PTI. He has decades of experience in plastic packaging ranging from tooling design to injection and blow molding processing. He currently focuses his efforts on helping multinational brand owners successfully navigate packaging projects from concept to commercialization.
PTI is recognized worldwide as a leading source for preform and package design, package development, rapid prototyping, pre-production prototyping, and material evaluation engineering for the plastic packaging industry. For more information, visit www.pti-usa.com.