The key to success for recycled-content packaging lies in meeting various state regulatory demands, along with sustainability initiatives such as those developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF).
Let’s be honest, though: There are costs associated with such initiatives that will most likely be passed on to consumers. However, the recent inflationary trends caused by higher energy prices, supply chain complications, and higher material prices can mask some of these costs, at least temporarily.
During research for this article, I found many examples of increasing use of recycled materials, especially plastics. But we have a long way to go before we can declare circularity success.
Here are six trends that are helping recycled-content packaging to gain ground.
1. Use of rPP in food packaging.
In March 2022, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued letters of no objection (LNOs) to use different recycling technologies to produce post-consumer resin (PCR) suitable for food contact. The LNOs cover mechanical recycling technologies for linear-low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and polypropylene (PP).
With the FDA direction in mind, Sabic & Scientex have developed flexible food packaging using 30%+ recycled polypropylene (rPP). Plus, Kerrygold Butter is being sold in tubs also made with 30% rPP. I am aware of similar developments that will be announced shortly.
Much of this rPP is coming from chemical recycling plants, such as the pilot plant just announced by Alterra in Akron, Ohio. And, PureCycle will open its flagship PP chemical recycling facility, also in Ohio, in First Quarter, 2023. (More on chemical recycling a bit later.)
Significantly, How2Recycle, the North American packaging recyclability labeling system that is part of GreenBlue and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), announced in August 2022 that it is upgrading the eligibility of rigid polypropylene tubs, bottles, jugs and jars from “check locally” to “widely recyclable” in the United States.
These activities are a welcome way to turn PP messaging from “recyclable” to “recycled.” Given both US and European regulatory interest in moving plastic recycling messaging from potential to reality, these types of developments are probably crucial to the long-term future of the PP consumer packaging industry.
2. Plastics to paper.
Amazon has replaced nearly 70% of mixed material bubble mailers in the US with recyclable paper padded mailers. Kellogg Europe is testing paper cereal liners for Corn Flakes. Paper bottles (many with rigid plastic or flexible internal containers!) are being tested for beer and alcohol packaging.
Some of these newer packages may be recycled or recyclable at higher percentages than their plastic counterparts. Some are not. But consumers hear the word “paper” and circularity becomes a virtual given for them, at least perceptually.
Think about it. If you committed to your stakeholders (or to EMF and similar programs) to move to at least 25% recycled content in your packaging by 2025, what would you do? Thanks to the rather abundant supply of available OCC (old corrugated containers), there is plenty of recycled paper available at very reasonable pricing. Plus, alcohol beverages have relatively high margins that can absorb the increased development and material costs associated with these types of packages.
3. Easier-to-recycle beverage bottles.
Label-free water bottle containers have hit the shelves. Evian, a Danone brand, has developed label-free bottles for non-grocery applications where no barcode labeling is needed. (These could also be used on multipacks where paper labels can be applied to the outer wrap or carton.) In fact, Valser, a European brand from Coca-Cola, recently launched label-free bottles with the barcode printed on the top of the lid.
There are other innovations out there as well. Use of crystallized polyethylene terephthalate (CPET) shrink labels can reduce or eliminate contaminants (such as polyethylene terephthalate gly, aka PETG) in the PET bottle recycling streams. Startup company Magnomer produces a system using magnetic ink-based shrink films and magnets that can remove shrink films during the grinding process, helping to create non-contaminated rPET streams.
Expect to see similar innovations coming to market in the near future. Since PET bottles are the gold standard of plastics recycling, much activity revolves around protecting both the recyclability and recycling rates of beverage, water, liquor, and beer bottles.
4. Chemical recycling progresses.
The plastics industry has begun to realize that sustainability-type investments are critical to its future. In the 1980s, the industry relied on its underlying functional and environmental benefit — source reduction — to capture large amounts of packaging material market share. In the early part of the 21st Century, plastic packaging had become ubiquitous, and increased demands for recyclability were initially downplayed and handled defensively by the major plastics-associated trade groups.
Now, after an additional 20 years, the major industry materials suppliers and converters are learning to accept this new playing field and are investing accordingly:
• Amcor signs agreement with ExxonMobil for five-year supply of recycled polyethylene.
• BASF and StePac Ltd. introduce chemically recycled produce packaging.
• Dow and London-based Mura Technology announced they intend to build multiple chemical recycling facilities in the US and Europe that would collectively add as much as 1.3 billion pounds of annual capacity.
5. Home collection of plastic films (finally) begins.
Plastic film recycling has been available for years — but in the wrong venues. Walmart, Kroger, Safeway, Target, and others have had bins in their stores since the 1990s. But you either can’t find them or most people don’t use them. (As we all know, the key to successful recycling is either through convenient, or financially driven, diversion programs — blue bins or deposit schemes, respectively.)
That’s starting to change. WM (previously known as Waste Management) and Dow have just rolled out the first residential plastic film program in the US. Per their joint press release, “WM and Dow announced the launch of a bold new collaboration to improve residential recycling for hard-to-recycle plastic films by allowing consumers in select markets to recycle these materials directly in their curbside recycling. According to The Recycling Partnership, currently, only 1.9% of US households have access to [non-grocery bag] curbside plastic film recycling, which is the plastic material with the lowest overall recycling rate. Once operating at full capacity, this program is expected to help WM divert more than 120,000 metric tons (MT) of plastics film from landfills annually.”
To be honest, it’s a pilot program in Hickory Hills, IL, and will reach 3,500 households. Consumers will be able to recycle bread bags, cling wrap, and dry-cleaning bags via curbside recycling. (Interestingly the release does not mention collection of used grocery sacks.) The two companies hope to expand the program reach to 8% of US households by 2025. (That’s about 10 million households.)
6. The 6th and biggest trend of all …
When you put all these developments together, one additional trend starts to emerge: It appears that the major plastics industry players have begun to realize that sustainability-type investments are critical to their future and are starting to take serious, strategic-level action.
Besides infrastructure, the industry must also invest time and money on the demand size of the equation. Success will not be based on the capacity that is created, but rather on the ability to convince consumers to appreciate, and participate in, these programs.
And that is the loop that must be closed if a circular economy is to be achieved.