There’s encouraging news regarding plastics circularity related to post-consumer recycled (PCR) content: The journey is well underway.
Admittedly, at a large scale the undertaking has the complexities of a Lord of the Rings-type quest. Reaching Mordor or other worthy destination comes step by step, requires committed participants, and presents obstacles along the way.
Journey to Plastics Circularity webinar January 13 sponsored by the Packaging Consortium (PAC) provided a snapshot of three diverse North America stakeholders — representatives involved in the brand, supplier, and municipal waste sectors — all reporting progress as they move toward a common goal.
Presenters included Eric Camirand, founder/CEO of Waste Robotics, a software provider that automates the sortation process using off-the-shelf robots; Marie-Anne Champoux-Guimond, sustainability head, Keurig Dr Pepper (KDP) Canada; and Charles Mathieu-Poulin, senior advisor, Transcontinental Packaging (TC), a prominent North American supplier of flexible packaging and the first Canadian manufacturer to join the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.
TC presented first, summarizing the company’s three main goals, notably of 100% recyclable, compostable, or reusable packaging by 2025. The packaging vendor, which operates 26 plants and has 3,850 employees, took the do-it-yourself, closed-loop approach to circularity in order to control the largest challenges of post-consumer recycled (PCR) content that include availability, consistency/quality, and cost. The company now produces its own PCR sourced from high-quality post-industrial and post-consumer sources.
“Sourcing high-quality PCR locally is a challenge,” said Mathieu-Poulin. “We're working hard to get polyethylene (PE) purity from 75% to 95% through a second sortation."
As part of its strategy, TC acquired recycled resin maker Enviroplast in June 2020.
Along with development new products and promoting use of PCR content, Mathieu-Poulin emphasized that “collaboration with industry partners in the US and Canada is key” for success.
KDP, the third largest beverage company in Canada, has corporate goals for 100% recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 along with using 30% PCR.
The brand's initiatives have included consumer education. “Changing behavior to get people to ‘peel, empty and recycle’ is difficult,” Champoux-Guimond said.
The company developed a coffee pods recycling program that diverted more than 160 tons of materials (including plastic, coffee, and lid/filter materials) from landfill in the first year.
One win was the company’s introduction in fall 2020 of a Keurig coffee maker made with 30% PCR ABS plastic sourced from discarded electronics and appliances. “It’s our first but certainly not our last, as we plan to launch five more models containing PCR in the coming year,” she pointed out.
Since 2014, KDP has invested more than CD $30 million in North America collaborations.
Sorting high-value content using AI and high-tech vision systems.
Waste Robotics’ Camirand spoke of autonomous recycling using artificial-intelligence (AI) software-driven intelligent robotics systems. “There are 2,000 municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) in North America employing 90,000 pickers who make an average wage of around $50,000 a year,” he noted.
Camirand suggested that replacing pickers addresses health and safety issues amidst the “COVID challenge” using efficient robotics “to do the dirty work” would focus on high-value polymer types: white polypropylene, high-density polyethylene, and PET.
This isn’t your standard mechanical recycling system, it’s a smart Big Data system that sends information to the cloud. Optimized real-time composition determinations can be shared across a network, a kind of strength-in-numbers approach to AI-enhanced robust learning.
Benefits of this approach include traceability of products by brand and volumetric and live mass (weight) and others; for example, polylactic acid (PLA) “has a clear signature" and can be separated by the system..
Since the onset of COVID-19 and its many associated health and safety challenges, Waste Robotics has seen increased interest in its various solutions.
“Robots are modular, can work 24/7 and operate at an effective wage of $12 per hour,” said Camirand. “Return-on-investment can be made in one to four years.” The vendor is in talks with companies in the US and elsewhere.