Published 4 years ago.
About a 8 minute read.
Image: Simply's 89-oz bottles were unrecyclable until a recent redesign | Simply
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With rising demand for plastic, little recycled content and poor recycling rates, companies need to look carefully at their packaging strategies to ensure improvement of packaging design, recycling systems and consumer engagement in recycling.
The level of attention and rapid action taken by communities to ban plastic
raised an important question for companies. How sustainable is their use of
With demands for plastic on the rise, little recycled content used, and
recycling rates poor at best, there is a need for companies to look
carefully at their packaging
to ensure meaningful progress toward a more circular approach, where the
material gets recovered for another valuable use — closing the loop.
This demands much more effort to improve packaging design and recycling
systems, as well as consumer engagement in
Plastic manufacturing and use have been on a rapid upward climb, expected to
in 20 years. Half of plastic is estimated to be single-use,
by packaging. Current recycled content levels are very low in plastic
packaging, less than 10
for the most common plastics.
Smarter package design is a key to the solution. Through its New Plastics
which now has over 350
the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s
for plastic packaging includes a call to:
Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items.
Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable or
Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out
of the environment.
This is more than getting rid
plastic straws. Companies need to minimize
materials, use reusable options whenever possible, shift away from packages
that are not recyclable or compostable, and include recycled content in the
remaining plastic used.
The Cola-Cola Company is active in this approach, having long been using
reusable bottles and reducing the weight of packaging, such as reducing the
weight of its latest Vitaminwater bottle 15
The company is also aggressively pursuing the additional aspects of design,
with an aspiration of a “world without waste.” The company’s design approach
to “make our packaging 100 percent recyclable globally by 2025 — and use at
least 50 percent recycled material in our packaging by 2030.”
Designing a package to be recyclable involves more than using a material
that is commonly collected for recycling — it needs to be able to be
collected and sorted, processed commercially, and used in materials again
with existing systems.
The Coca-Cola Company’s Simply brand juices are in PET bottles. While
this is typically one of the most recycled types of packages, the larger,
89-oz. Simply bottle had an integrated handle made from PETG. PETG is not
the same as PET and causes significant issues in processing PET for
This package also had a label and adhesive that was hard to wash off during
recycling. Both of these issues meant the package was not recyclable and
could contaminate the PET recycling stream, reducing its value/ability to
have another use. The company worked to improve the package and now has a
PET version for this product without the PETG handle and with a
These are just a few examples of design areas for packaging to be optimized
for this system. Walmart is one company that developed
to help suppliers understand these opportunities to inform their package
Coca-Cola is also progressing on its recycled content target. The company
has some water bottles made from 100 percent recycled plastic — but has more
to do, since globally just 9 percent of recycled material is used in its PET
packaging. Companies can look to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s
(SPC) Design for Recycled Content Guide for
more information on how to include recycled content in packaging.
Just 15 percent of plastic packaging is
from US consumers. The barriers to increase this substantially include
designing packaging for recycling, but Closed Loop
point out that current infrastructure and technologies have significant
limits in managing used plastic – from collection to recycling it for
found that only half of the US population automatically has a recycling
program available to them, with others either required to opt-in, subscribe,
drop-off or have no program available.
Proactive companies understand this challenge and have been supporting the
development of recycling systems, such as ways to make it easy for consumers
to recycle packaging and technologies that improve the sorting and
processing of collected packaging.
This has largely involved supporting collaborative efforts and funding
organizations aimed to address this need, such as The Recycling
Partnership — a collaborative effort with 40 organizations working to
support the growth of systems for consumers to have ready access to
recycling — as well as the Closed Loop Fund (from Closed Loop Partners), a consortium of over a dozen
consumer product companies working to scale recycling and circular economy
across the US. Amazon recently invested $10
in Closed Loop Fund to help increase the availability of curbside recycling for three
million homes in communities across the country.
Direct engagement is also important. The Coca-Cola Company has a loan
with a company that will process the harder to recycle plastic and make a
recycled food-grade PET available for their use. And Henkel has a
partnership with the Plastic
that helped build plastic collection
in Haiti — not only addressing infrastructure needs, but also providing
new jobs in the impoverished community. By the end of 2018, the work through
the Plastic Bank
over 60 metric tons of plastic that was then recycled for another use.
The final piece of the puzzle is consumers. The
of US consumers say that recycling is important to them and that it
influences their purchase choices. They also say that they would
look to the product’s packaging
first to learn if it was recyclable, with two-thirds of those surveyed
assuming a package is not recyclable if it does not have a recycling symbol
or language on it. This partly explains why recycling rates are low.
However, time after time our clients find that consumers think they know
what to do with their used packaging, but say the wrong thing about what is
recyclable or compostable. A recent
by the Grocery Manufacturers Association echoes this, with 92 percent of
consumers surveyed being unsure or believing that anything with a plastic
resin code could be recycled curbside, despite the fact that some of those resin codes are not recyclable. This demands
more active education of consumers and makes the case for including clear
recycling language on packages, such as the How2Recycle
Image credit: How2Recycle
The easy-to-understand How2Recycle label guides consumers on what to do with
their used packaging (e.g., recyclable, store-drop off, check locally, not
recyclable). The How2Recycle program now includes 130 member
Target — which is using the
standardized label across its private-brand products; the retailer takes it
a step further with recycling kiosks in all its stores. While having access
to can, glass, plastic bottle, plastic bag and other recycling in stores
helps to increase collection, it also reinforces the message to consumers on
what is recyclable to support recycling more broadly.
Walmart and Unilever are also using the How2Recycling label. To ensure
that consumers make use of this information, these companies partnered to
launch a program in 2019 to educate and
consumers to recycle. The “Bring It to the Bin” campaign will include
in-store and online education about recycling. Henkel has a similar aim, and
a unique target —
to have 1 billion consumers informed about recycling by 2025.
These efforts to not only label packaging about its recyclability — but also
reinforcing the message so consumers know what to do with that information
and can effectively do their part — is a critical strategy because, without
consumer participation in recycling, the loop is broken.
This progress is encouraging and establishing a new baseline expectation —
for all companies to advance effective plastic packaging strategies in
design, system development, and consumer engagement and education. This
level of effort is what is needed for the sea change required to move
plastic from our oceans and environment to a circular and more sustainable
Published May 15, 2019 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Cheryl Baldwin, Ph.D. is a Vice President of Consulting for Pure Strategies, where she partners with corporate clients to develop and execute strategies to improve sustainability performance across food, home and personal care, and cosmetics industries. Cheryl also leads the firms’ global market research to generate new insights to accelerate business transformation.
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.