Many companies have made commitments to drastically increase their use of post-consumer recycled content (PCR) in their packaging or products. Take Nestlé, which pledged to reach 30 percent PCR in packaging by 2025, or L'Oréal, which pledged 50 percent. There are even laws taking effect that call for companies to incorporate more PCR, such as Assembly Bill 793 in California.
But there’s an elephant in the room: There’s not enough recycled plastic for companies to meet those mandates or their public commitments (let alone their private ambitions).
And we’re not moving in the right direction. Virgin versus PCR plastic use in packaging actually increased (by 2.5 percent) between 2020 and 2021.
Why is there not enough recycled content to meet the needs of companies?
- We design products with a "virgin mentality": Historically, we’ve designed our products and packages from virgin raw materials, because they’re low-cost, can be adapted for use in many applications and have been readily available. In other words, we’re actively designing from a "virgin mentality," relying on the price and performance that new materials offer.
More recently, organizations are embracing — or in some cases, are required — to use recycled content. Since the systems to manufacture their products (packaging production lines) are already in place, they need to find recycled content that behaves the same as the virgin material they are trying to replace. If characteristics such as melt flow, color and grade (such as food grade) aren’t the same, they’ll have to modify their manufacturing processes (mold cycle times, wall thickness, color, etc.). That can make the product less desirable because of a higher cost or different look and performance.
So far, the only PCR that seems to allow companies to avoid changing their processes is made from beverage containers (polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, beverage bottles and high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, milk jugs). Have you noticed that a T-shirt or a shampoo bottle made from rPET (recycled PET) is not made from other T-shirts or shampoo bottles but from soda bottles? This moves a food-grade clear plastic into a non-food grade application. Once it’s made into a T-shirt, it’s unlikely to be recycled again and would not technically be able to be made back into a soda bottle.
- The energy crisis is making recycled content less available: The energy crisis, sparked by the ongoing war in Ukraine, has shaken the global energy market. In Europe and the rest of the world, recycling facilities are heavily affected.
In Italy, the national association of companies that recycle plastics announced the suspension of 40 percent of recycling activities. Plastics Recyclers Europe has even hinted that plastic recycling companies could be driven out of business, as energy represents up to 70 percent of operational costs. Governments would rather focus their energy reserves on heating and critical sectors.
Many global companies rely on European recyclers to provide content for their packaging. With the cost of recycling going up, company commitments to integrate recycled content are not economically viable. (Although U.S. recycling companies have yet to be greatly affected by such a shift, the impact on their global business plans could impede any chance of catching up to timed brand commitments.)
- There’s a lack of government support: The failure of companies to achieve their voluntary commitments is more evidence of the need for governments to step in, say the Ellen McArthur Foundation (EMF), Greenpeace and more.
Governments are beginning to mandate PCR use (such as through AB 793 in California or the European Commission’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive), but this is creating even more demand for the small pool of available PCR. What is really needed from governments is fiscal support of recycling infrastructure and technology, and pressure for systems to be closed loop. So, for example, soda bottle material stays in soda bottles, and T-shirts are made back into T-shirts.
So, what now?
The No. 1 way to address the issue is to design from a "waste mentality." Designing based on material that’s already available in the waste stream — not just municipally sourced beverage containers — can be done through:
Closed-loop design: The best solution is to design packaging to be closed loop (having the ability to be made back into itself at its end of life). Let's look at two examples of this in practice.
- HDPE shampoo bottle: First, examine the material characteristics of the available material, which means looking at a pile of shampoo bottles. Design something that fits those characteristics (opaque, perhaps gray in color, thicker-walled). Now that you have a closed-loop bottle design, find an input by calling recycling centers. You may find that recycling centers are sorting for natural-color HDPE (like milk jugs) but not darker HDPE (like shampoo bottles). Now see if you can pay them to start sorting for this new fraction. You’ll have the PCR you need, and you’ll have improved the recycling system by creating demand for more diverse types of material beyond clear PET and HDPE, preventing "less-desirable" packaging materials from ending up in an open-loop system.
- GPPS (general-purpose polystyrene) pen: You guessed it; start with a pile of pen waste and go from there. Once you have a design, you’ll need to figure out where to source the PCR. Unlike with shampoo bottles, you won’t be able to source material from the current recycling industry. You’ll need to set up your own supply chain through a take-back program.
Design from waste (not closed loop): This concept is similar to the above, but would not involve designing bottle-to-bottle or pen-to-pen. Instead, you’re turning one type of waste (not municipally sourced beverage containers) into another.
- Source from recycling centers: Work with recycling centers to find an input (one they don’t currently sort for) that would fit the characteristics of the package you’re designing. That could be, say, dark PET or cosmetics packaging, if you’re designing a shampoo bottle. Pay the recycling centers to begin collecting and recycling this material.
- Self-source: You can also collect materials yourself. One way to go about this is by collecting "storied materials" — materials that carry a narrative and can be traced to point of origin. Collecting waste with a story (such as trash from the ocean or the top of Mount Everest) doesn’t seem economical at face value. But products created with storied material resonate with consumers and unlock added marketing value (from reaching sustainability goals, earning media placements and standing out on shelves) that traditional PCR can’t.
For instance, we worked with brand partner P&G to create shampoo bottles from ocean plastic. The response was so strong that P&G expanded this framework to its Herbal Essences line and to homecare with Fairy and Joy dish soap.
All of the above ideas represent only a step on the journey and not the answer. Recycling and using recycled content alone won’t solve the waste crisis. We must design the idea of waste out of the system.
It’s time to invest in new business models that enable a shift away from disposable to reusable. This will be a shift as big as moving from horse and buggy to gasoline-powered cars or from gas to electric cars. But solutions already exist to support companies in moving to reusable packaging. Some have a regional reach or are sector-specific (reusable cup programs in quick-serve restaurants in Canada and London), some are cross-sector and global (such as Loop, a division of TerraCycle), and there are also various bulk initiatives run by retailers (Asda and Carrefour, for example).
With all that said, the true solution is to stop waste at the source. We all need to vote for a better future by buying less.