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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Evolving Plastic Packaging Strategies — Beyond the Straw

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 straws raised an important question for companies. How sustainable is their use of plastic packaging?

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 strategies 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 recycling.

Design for circularity

Plastic manufacturing and use have been on a rapid upward climb, expected to double in 20 years. Half of plastic is estimated to be single-use, dominated by packaging. Current recycled content levels are very low in plastic packaging, less than 10 percent for the most common plastics.

Smarter package design is a key to the solution. Through its New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which now has over 350 signatories, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s vision 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 compostable.

  • Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

This is more than getting rid of plastic straws. Companies need to minimize packaging 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 percent. The company is also aggressively pursuing the additional aspects of design, with an aspiration of a “world without waste.” The company’s design approach includes targets 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 recycling.

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 recyclable PET version for this product without the PETG handle and with a recycling-compatible label.

These are just a few examples of design areas for packaging to be optimized for this system. Walmart is one company that developed guidance to help suppliers understand these opportunities to inform their package design.

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.

Support infrastructure and technology development

Just 15 percent of plastic packaging is recovered from US consumers. The barriers to increase this substantially include designing packaging for recycling, but Closed Loop Partners point out that current infrastructure and technologies have significant limits in managing used plastic – from collection to recycling it for another use.

The SPC 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 infrastructure across the US. Amazon recently invested $10 million 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 agreement 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 Bank that helped build plastic collection centers 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 collected over 60 metric tons of plastic that was then recycled for another use.

Improve consumer engagement

The final piece of the puzzle is consumers. The majority 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 study 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 label.

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 companies, including 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 encourage 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 model.