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Waste Not
The Problem with Recycling, Part 2:
Increasing Recycled Content in New Products

This is the second in a three-part series covering key opportunities to turn “the plastic recycling problem” into a circular economy for plastics.

As we discussed in part 1 of this series, the amount of plastic recycled each year (less than 10 percent of plastic in the US) not only pales in comparison to how much ends up in landfills (86 percent in the US alone), it’s also getting lapped by virgin plastic production. Because only a tiny fraction of plastic gets recycled, new material must continue to be produced to keep pace with increasing demand.

In the last three decades, global plastic consumption has quadrupled. In 2019, 353 million tonnes of plastic ended up as waste across the world — roughly 32 million tonnes of that were recycled, while more than 176 million tonnes entered landfills. Meanwhile, manufacturers created 460 million tonnes of new plastic. The forecast for 2030 shows a troubling trajectory — with new plastic production continuing to far outpace what’s expected to be recycled.

Many manufacturers say they worry about the costs associated with integrating recycled plastic into their products; and their concerns are somewhat legitimate: Mechanically recycled plastic polymers aren’t always as hardy against wear and tear as their virgin plastic counterparts. But that view can be shortsighted.

At Oceanworks, we know that in many instances a near-perfect substitute already exists. The extreme conditions under which manufacturers test their products often don’t reflect the real-world conditions those products will face in the hands of consumers. And although a recycled-plastic product may not be able to withstand a fall from a skyscraper as well as its clone made from virgin plastic, the tradeoff to have a smaller environmental footprint may ultimately be more appealing to consumers: A recent study from the Finnish Environment Institute reveals 93 percent of consumers who purchased goods made of recycled plastics are satisfied with those products; and the use of recycled plastics positively influenced purchasing decisions of 86 percent of consumers.

The bottom line is that recycled plastic’s quality is seldom an issue in the real world; and manufacturers that have concerns about quality have several measures to bolster their use of recycled plastics — including blending, single-source recycling and quality-enhancing additives. Brands often undervalue the appeal that incorporating post-consumer recycled materials into their products has for consumers; even modest additions of recycled materials can influence a consumer’s purchasing decision. Most consumers — especially millennials and Gen Z shoppers — prioritize purchasing from brands that are focused on improving their environmental footprint, especially when those efforts are paired with transparent messaging around impact.

Glad® Australia utilized 50 percent oceanbound plastic to create its Glad to be Green® Bin Liners and worked with Oceanworks® to ensure accurate language to communicate the product’s impact to consumers. Image credit: Glad® Australia

At Oceanworks, we have discovered an interesting lack of raw material accountability at the brand-level, specifically related to plastics. For instance, many global brands that utilize metals and plastics may track metal commodities, but still don't track plastic data. This becomes an issue when pushing for recycled-plastic implementation and drafting contracts with manufacturers; brands are at the mercy of manufacturers who have little incentive to switch from virgin plastics to recycled plastics. If the brand teams lack knowledge around recycled-plastic commodity pricing, serious discussions of change quickly become unrealistic.

But changes are on the way. As consumers become more aware of and concerned about the problems with plastic, brands are becoming more intimately involved in their manufacturing processes and sourcing to minimize their environmental footprint; the ones that don’t are sure to be left behind. To succeed, brands need a mix of key factors — strong executive leadership to make sustainability a priority from the top down, materials experts to help them navigate their supplier networks, inspired marketing teams who are fully committed to transparency, and trusted sustainability partners who can provide assistance.

It all adds up to the reality that suppliers are facing mounting pressure to integrate recycled material into manufactured goods. And as consumers get more visibility into how a brand’s products are sourced and produced, their confidence that some brands are truly committed should drive more demand for recycled-plastic products and a willingness to pay a premium for those sustainable options.

Part 1 of this series discussed how to fix the broken plastic-recycling system. Part 3 will cover how to reduce confusion about plastic recycling and boost consumer confidence.

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