Recycling plays a crucial role in the quest to end plastics waste and move to a circular economy. Industry leaders say that traditional, mechanical, and chemical recycling methods are needed.
While chemical recycling shows promise experts also seek to improve the ability of thermoplastics to be recycled via the traditional processes of sorting collected material, reducing it to flakes, and compounding it for reuse ie mechanical process.
Although there are technical and economic hurdles to overcome in improving the mechanical recycling of post-consumer plastics, there is a need for post-consumer recyclate (PCR) to meet the ambitious goals set by brand owners for PCR content in their packaging and products. Improving the system will require a multifaceted approach, including designing single-use consumer products for recycling, getting consumers to put plastics in recycling bins, having adequate recycling facilities, and creating markets for recycled material so it is economically feasible to collect and reuse.
End-users of plastics goods and packaging want information about recycling and designing for sustainability. “They want to make the right decisions. We in the plastics industry need to educate end-users so they can specify the right material in the right design for the benefits that they’re looking for,” said Tom Salon, chief executive officer and board chairman of packaging giant Berry Global Group, in March 2020. End-users need information about how recyclate will affect the price and properties of their products, and the industry needs solutions that are acceptable to end-users and that the market will pay for, he explained. “We need solutions for brand owners that everyone in the value chain can benefit from,” spoke Jim Fitterling, CEO of Dow.
Design for Recyclability
One of the keys is designing products to be recyclable. “True systems thinking is required at the outset to ensure that marketers and product designers are using Design for Environment principles. Incorporating end-of-life concerns at the design phase is critical to recyclability,”
The Association of Plastic Recyclers’ APR Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability aims to help the industry and packaging designers create products that are easier to recycle. The online guide was originally published in 1995 but is continually updated and available on APR’s website. In March 2020, APR and the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) released a segment-specific guide for food service plastics.
APR’s Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability advises on creating packaging products like these HDPE containers that are easy to recycle in existing recycling and sorting systems.
Progress is being made in labeling too. While shrink sleeve labels were once a problem, many labels are available that are designed properly so they don’t cause problems in recycling systems.
Plastics Recyclers Europe’s RecyClass online tool analyzes design for recyclability in Europe and offers certification. PRE continues to update the tool with new data. Results released in March, for example, found that an ethylene-vinyl alcohol barrier layer with a polyethylene-grafted maleic anhydride tie layer was compatible in high- density PET recycling streams.
Design engineers at Colgate-Palmolive Co. understand the process of designing for recyclability. They spent five years developing a recyclable toothpaste tube, and Colgate is making the switch, beginning with the company’s Tom’s of Maine brand this year in Europe and North America. The company plans to modify its tube-making equipment around the world to move completely to the new tube construction by 2025. Colgate worked closely with APR to ensure that the flexible tube design would be compatible with the systems in use at MRFs so that the tubes can be recycled along with the HDPE stream. The tube now also has Recy Class certification as recyclable in Europe.
Colgate-Palmolive is sharing the design with other companies. “If we can standardize recyclable tubes among all companies, we all win.”, the company said
Toothpaste tubes are typically made from a combination of different plastics and a layer of aluminum. Colgate engineers went through an iterative design process to replace the different materials primarily with multiple layers of HDPE that would meet the requirements of protecting the product, performance in high-speed production equipment and being squeezable. An ethylene-vinyl acetate barrier layer prevents flavor changes but does not negatively affect recycling. When the design was perfected, Colgate conducted tests using APR methods to demonstrate that the tubes would be correctly sorted in recycling equipment. The company was rewarded with official APR recognition.
Essel Propack, in India, received APR recognition for the recyclability. Dow has been working on material development to optimize PE for this use. At K2019, Dow displayed prototypes of PE-based, medium-to- high-barrier pouches made with machine-direction oriented (MDO) films that are designed for recyclability.
The supply and demand must also grow for the recycling industry to be healthy. As more material gets collected, one needs to be sure there are diverse and robust markets for recycled plastic.
Recent commitments from brand owners to use PCR indicate that demand will be high. But APR is also helping with a broad effort that aims to raise recycling rates by creating demand. The APR Recycling Demand Champion Campaign publicizes companies that use or make products containing PCR. The group reports that in 2019, Recycling Demand Champions increased their use of PCR by 1,17,48,043 kg
APR and the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) recently partnered to launch the Government Recycling Demand Champions program that is tailored to state, regional, and local governments around the United States.
Other recent efforts have looked at certification and standards to assure buyers and give credence to claims about PCR. APR’s PCR Certification Program, launched in March 2020, endorses companies that provide third-party certification of PCR and promotes APR members that receive certification. APR defines PCR in line with the ISO 14201:2016 standard, which defines PCR as material generated by end-users that has been or can no longer be used for its intended purpose. In APR’s definition, material from a manufacturing process is considered post-industrial recycle. APR will also accept PCR as certified if it has been certified under the requirements of USA State California’s Senate Bill.
NSF International is working on a recycled material standard (RMS) that it is developing with the non-profit GreenBlue (the parent program of The Sustainable Packaging Coalition, How2Reycle, and other initiatives) to help advance the use of recyclate in packaging materials. The group will first address plastic packaging in North America and then plans to expand to other materials, such as paper and glass. RMS committee members include representatives from Eastman Chemical, Printpack, Sealed Air, and others. The project was launched in October 2019, and NSF is planning field tests before a public comment period in the year 2020, with the publication of the standard planned for 2021.
“The RMS will provide verification and traceability for both post-consumer and post-industrial materials. It relies on definitions for recycled materials that are consistent with ISO definitions, and we hope to harmonize with other recycled material standards that meet similar criteria,” says a consultant at GreenBlue.
This is an important point in time to change our current make-to-waste approach to a more circular economy—one that focuses on everything from smart rethink, design, chemistry production, all the way to reuse and recycling in the era of the new normal!