Hurdles impede use of recycled plastics

John Kalkowski

January 30, 2014

2 Min Read
Hurdles impede use of recycled plastics

Most retailers embrace the use of recycled content as an environmental packaging goal for good reasons. First, recycled content is understood by consumers and resonates well with them. Second, using post-consumer recycled (PCR) content helps drive market development for recovered materials. And third, robust recovered material markets are required to create more sustainable closed-loop systems. 

Yet many retail buyers don't understand either the opportunity or challenges associated with PCR use, and converters can find them difficult to explain. There are performance requirements, technical and aesthetic considerations, material availability issues and, depending upon the product to be packaged, FDA regulations that apply. 

Over the past 10 months a technical working group of 30 Sustainable Packaging Coalition member companies have been exploring the state of PCR use in specific plastic packaging applications. This month, the SPC will release the results of the project with the report, Guidelines for Post Consumer Recycled Content in Plastic Packaging. The objective is to help retailers become better informed and more proficient in specifying recycled content that converters can realistically strive to deliver. Some study findings and a preview of best practice considerations follow: 

Five factors emerged as the primary challenges to increased recycled content use: 1) lack of material collection/sorting infrastructure; 2) limited material markets; 3) international competition for recovered materials; 4) compliance with food and drug direct contact requirements; and, 5) achieving critical performance specifications such as material strength. Even when collection and sorting exists and recycled material markets are developed, the demand for recycled content often exceeds supply. For example, packaging substrate manufacturers and converters compete for recycled PET with producers of carpeting, textiles, construction materials and strapping. 

Many of the challenges identified in this study can be overcome, and solutions are offered in the guidelines. Whether a challenge becomes an actual limitation often depends upon a supplier's and/or customer's level of comfort with making trade-offs. For example, while the functional integrity of the packaging should never be sacrificed, aesthetics, such as bottle color, might be modified without risking market share. Such decisions must be made for each application and require an understanding of market and consumer expectations. Issues associated with PCR price fluctuations and processing costs need to be considered. 

Some best-practice tips can help optimize use of PCR in the design and manufacture of various types plastic packaging. 

For example, ensure design and performance specifications are performance-based, not material based. Consider adjusting the package design to accommodate recycled content, but be careful not to design-in unintended environmental impacts. Choose a reputable plastics recycler who can provide detailed technical and inspection data as well as good customer support. Develop relationships with suppliers to ensure supply access, secure favorable pricing and have access to technical support. And, finally, support development of innovative recycling process technologies to facilitate closed-loop recycling. Full guidelines are available at

Katherine O'Dea is a Senior Fellow for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (,
a project of GreenBlue. For additional information, email [email protected].

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