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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Truly Closing the Loop:
The ‘Recyclable’ vs ‘Circular’ Distinction

The term 'recycling' has become ubiquitous in our daily lives, but the nuances between ‘recyclable’ and ‘circular’ are often misunderstood. Understanding the distinction between the two is crucial in achieving a sustainable future.

Despite the widespread promotion of recycling, confusion still exists among consumers about what is truly recyclable. For example, a recent report found that only 5 to 6 percent of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the United States last year was recycled. But consumers still hold the belief that glass, plastic and liquid cartons are more recyclable than they are; and they don’t perceive metals to be as recyclable as they are. Promoting sustainability starts with tackling the misperceptions of recyclability and recycling rates, and clarifying the definition of a circular economy.

Recyclable vs circular

Recycling has been widely promoted since the 1970s. In theory or on a small scale, most materials can be recycled; but in reality on an industrial scale, it is much more nuanced than that. “Recycling” refers to the process of collecting waste, sorting, reprocessing and finally turning it into a new product. This is a much more complicated process than meets the eye — as there are losses of material in each step of the process. You might think that a plastic fork, for example, is “recycled” when you deposit it in a recycling bin — but unfortunately, the material’s recycling rate is much lower than expected: Only 5-6 percent of plastic is recycled, and much of it ends up in landfills.

While recycling is undoubtedly a necessary component of a circular economy, we need to ensure that products and materials are designed from the outset to be reused, repaired and remanufactured. The next step to this is the number of times a material can be recycled, which depends on the quality of the final recyclates and the recycling systems in place. This is what we refer to as “circularity.”

Some materials, such as plastics or mixed composites, reduce in quality when recycled and can therefore often only be recycled two to three times before ending up in a landfill or incinerator — therefore, they cannot be considered to be circular. Other materials — such as steel, aluminum and glass — are at the other end of the spectrum and can be recycled forever. That's a massive difference — and it's the “forever” part that makes a material circular instead of “just” recyclable.

Packaging is an essential component of a circular economy, and its design and use must minimize waste and maximize use of resources. In this context, packaging is an important part of the product life cycle — as its design, use and disposal are crucial to achieving a circular economy. We must be creating closed-loop systems where materials are collected, sorted and recycled into new products, and utilizing raw materials from renewable sources.

That’s why recycling is not the end goal: It doesn’t look at the bigger picture. Minimizing packaging material, using infinitely recyclable materials, encouraging reuse and designing packaging to minimize waste throughout the entire life cycle — from production to disposal — are all essential to achieving circularity.

The switch to circular is critical

The lack of progress in recycling efforts is a concern, especially given the amount of plastic waste plaguing our oceans and nature. If we don't take immediate action, the 11 million metric tons of plastic that enter the ocean each year will triple in the next 20 years. This is why businesses must understand the complexities of recycling and take a more active role in enabling a circular economy. We must shift our focus towards circular materials and away from those that can only be recycled a few times.

Thankfully, according to Trivium Packaging's 2022 Global Buying Green Report, consumers are eager to play a role in finding long-term solutions. The report found that over half of consumers are less likely to purchase products with harmful packaging; and 44 percent have stated they will not buy products with environmentally harmful packaging.

Propelling the shift toward circular

Despite consumers prioritizing sustainable packaging, there remains a gap in their recycling practices. Brands are responsible for bridging this gap and can do so in several ways.

Invest in infrastructure that supports circularity

Businesses can start by investing in the infrastructure needed for circular materials. By embracing materials that are infinitely recyclable and avoiding those with limited recyclability, companies of all sizes can not only advance their own sustainability objectives but also play a role in preserving our planet. Steel, for example, is infinitely recyclable — with an 86 percent recycling rate in Europe. This makes it a more environmentally sustainable option considering that only a portion of the energy is needed to recycle metal compared to virgin material.

Collaborate with recycling centers

Businesses can also collaborate with recycling centers to promote new technologies that can more accurately and efficiently sort recyclable materials. This partnership can take many forms, such as investing in advanced recycling equipment or funding research and development for new sorting technologies. By supporting these initiatives, companies can help ensure that the recycling process is as efficient and effective as possible, reducing waste and increasing the number of materials that can be reused.

For example, we are collaborating with industry stakeholders on the efficient collection and recycling of used materials — especially household waste — through a process known as urban mining. Our Trivium Argentina plant recently partnered with Creando Conciencia — an urban recyclers organisation that collects aerosol aluminum cans from consumers’ homes, then processes and sells them to Trivium for inclusion in the production of new aluminum containers. This partnership is a great example of the kind of supplier-based collaborations that actively promote recycling in line with a circular economy.

This not only supports circularity but also helps to conserve valuable resources and reduce the environmental impact of waste. Furthermore, companies that work with recycling centers to promote new technologies can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility — which can positively impact their reputation and attract conscious consumers.

Educate consumers through packaging and initiatives

The next step is reaching consumers through education and engagement. Brands can create educational content on recycling across their channels — communicating the benefits of sustainable materials and incentivizing the recycling of their products and packaging. For example, incorporating labels such as Europe’s Metal Recycles Forever mark or How2Recycle info on packaging and point-of-sale materials can help showcase a company's attention to sustainable packaging and inspire consumers to take action. This helps change behavior and drive the adoption of more environmentally conscious practices, as 54 percent of consumers actively look for sustainability information on packaging.

Showcasing sustainability information on packaging is part of the solution, but packaging can only do so much — brands that take a more holistic approach to sustainability marketing by making packaging material part of their story, on their website and through advertising and promotion, can help align perceptions with reality and strengthen their sustainability credentials.

Conclusion

Ultimately, recycling is far from the simple solution promoted in the past; it is complex and requires effort from everyone involved. But businesses have a critical role in bridging the gap between consumer interest in sustainable products and packaging and their everyday recycling practices. This can be accomplished by focusing on two key efforts: investing in circular materials and processes, and incentivizing circular behaviors. By shifting the focus towards circularity versus recyclability, we are one step closer to ensuring a sustainable future for our planet.

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