Thinking ahead

Features - Consumer Packaging

Brand owners and their packaging suppliers are taking greater measures to assist in the recyclability of their packaging.

May 8, 2014
Brian Taylor

Designing products and packaging that can cause an individual to make a purchase remains the primary task of the creative people employed by consumer product companies and their design agencies.

When it comes to food and beverage products, the integrity and shelf life of the product within and the health of the buyer go hand in hand as foremost goals.

Despite the irreplaceability of these high priorities, corporate sustainability initiatives and striving to meet the recycling expectations of consumers and government agencies are causing many brand owners and packaging designers to think more about the end-of-life recyclability of what they put onto store shelves and into coolers.

On the list

The most common forms of packaging—such as old corrugated containers (OCC), aluminum used beverage containers (UBCs) or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) beverage bottles—are well-established globally to recyclers and traders.

Both challenges and opportunities arise in the recycling industry, however, because the world of consumer packaging is never standing still. Makers of food, beverages and other products are always seeking a competitive edge and often turn to innovative packaging designs and ideas to provide that edge.

Canada reports plastic progress

The Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), Mississauga, Ontario, has conducted research that it says points to increased plastic packaging recycling taking place in that nation.

The report, titled “2012 Post Consumer Plastics Recycling in Canada Report,” has been designed to provide detailed information on the favorable recycling trend.

Moore Recycling Associates Inc., Sonoma, Calif., the firm that researched and wrote the report for CPIA, says the recycling of postconsumer plastic packaging in Canada increased for the third straight year in 2012. An additional 10 percent of plastic packaging was recycled in 2012 compared with 2011. The increase is the result of more material collected for recycling as well as more companies providing recycling information, according to the report.

In total, more than 628 million pounds (314,000 tons) of postconsumer plastic packaging was collected for recycling in 2012 in Canada, the report notes.

“We are pleased to see an overall increase in companies participating in this valuable survey and in the amount of plastic packaging collected and recycled in Canada,” says Carol Hochu, president and CEO of the CPIA. “The survey results found that [314,000 tons] was recycled, 83 percent of which remained in North America.

“We continue to work with our members to build and grow our national recycling industry in Canada,” Hochu continues, “reusing valuable plastic materials and creating jobs."

The 2012 results show an increase of 3 percent in the recycling of plastic bottles between 2011 and 2012, a 29 percent increase for nonbottle rigid plastics, an increase of 18 percent for plastic bags and outer wrap and a 24 percent increase for polystyrene foam.

The report says compounders and consumers of plastic scrap in Canada are eager for more supply and have under-utilized capacity, which creates ample opportunity for consumers and businesses to supply recyclers with more scrap. The report estimates the film and bag recycling capacity rate in Canada increased from 38 percent to 49 percent in 2012 and the nonbottle rigid recycling capacity rate went from 47 percent to 60 percent.

The report is available from CPIA and can be accessed by visiting

For a creative person in the design field, this is a welcome process. For recyclers, however, this can be a far less exciting prospect, as a new design may introduce a new material or a combination of materials that is difficult to separate.

Whether the changes are welcome or not, recyclers must stay attuned to new types of packaging. Traditionally, recyclers have found themselves well outside the decision-making process of brand owners and designers as they created new types of packaging.

Corporate sustainability and product stewardship trends, among other factors, have begun to change that situation. Ronald deVlam of design firm WebbdeVlam, which has offices in Chicago and London, says consumer product companies are increasingly focusing on “doing well and doing good” as they try to build sustainability and environmental stewardship track records they can point to with pride.

Speaking to attendees of the 2014 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference Middle East, held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in March, deVlam said lightweighting (to save on transportation energy consumption) and closing the loop are among the priorities for companies making packaging design decisions.

Makers of detergents and cleaners increasingly sell products in a concentrated form that cuts down on the amount of overall packaging used.

In terms of consumer products companies closing the loop, Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, received the 2010 Design for Recycling Award from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), Washington, D.C, for its use of the PlantBottle—a biopolymer that is compatible with PET for recycling purposes.

Upon winning the award, Coca-Cola said it had been working to develop the compatible container for more than a decade. “For the past 10 years, we’ve been working to discover a way to completely decouple the plastic used in our bottles from oil without compromising the advances made in efficiency, recycling and product production,” stated Scott Vitters, who at the time was head of global sustainable packaging for Coca-Cola Co. “Instead of focusing on developing an entirely new renewable resin, we decided to leverage the existing value of PET plastic and make it even better,” he added.

Another company that has been putting considerable energy and investment into packaging recyclability is Sweden-based Tetra Pak, which creates multimaterial juice and beverage cartons designed to extend the shelf life of such products.

Sustained effort

At times during its more than 60-year history, Tetra Pak has been criticized by recycling advocates for its package design (known as aseptic packaging), which consists of layered paperboard, aluminum and polymer laminates.

By weight, the average aseptic carton is 73 percent paper, 23 percent plastic and 4 percent aluminum, said Tetra Pak’s Otso Toikka, who also offered a presentation at the 2014 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference Middle East.

Toikka said the use of the three materials is intrinsic to the design of the company’s package, so major design changes are unlikely. However, that hasn’t stopped Tetra Pak from paying greater attention to recyclability.

In the U.S., Tetra Pak has been a key backer of the Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Carton Council, The industry-funded organization has focused on increasing collection of aseptic cartons and other juice and beverage cartons. It also has funded equipment to help recyclers sort out cartons from commingled streams and has worked with paper mills to encourage the pulping of cartons at mills.

(More information about the Carton Council’s efforts can be found in the article “An expanding frontier” in the December 2012 edition of Recycling Today. An article titled “The ABCs of recycling” in the March 2014 edition of Recycling Today provides an update on the Carton Council’s collection efforts in schools.)

In his presentation, Toikka emphasized that Tetra Pak’s product is designed to prevent waste of another kind—food and beverage spoilage. According to Toikka, a United Nations study estimates that some 1 billion tons of food is spoiled or otherwise wasted each year, with the problem being especially acute when packaging is lacking.

While food and beverage waste prevention is Tetra Pak’s primary mission, the company understands the need to prioritize recycling, Toikka said. “Recycling is no longer optional, it is essential and is the most sensible thing to do.”

The efforts of the Carton Council in the U.S. and similar programs in other parts of the world have made a difference in terms of aseptic packaging, Toikka said.

Tetra Pak’s figures indicate that globally some 343,000 metric tons of Tetra Pak cartons were recycled in 2007, but that amount has climbed steadily in each of the subsequent six years. By 2012, the figure had reached 581,000 metric tons, and in 2013 it climbed to 623,000—a 7 percent year-on-year increase.

The 2013 totals reflected a 24.5 percent global recycling rate for aseptic cartons, with some 43 billion cartons being recycled.

Paper mills can effectively turn nearly 75 percent of the collected weight back into a new product, with tissue mills often being a common destination for cartons. It is unclear in this case to what extent, if any, the plastic or aluminum can be recovered by mills for recycling purposes.

“Technology is no longer a limitation,” said Toikka regarding the ability for these two materials to be recovered, though the cost effectiveness for a mill to do so remains an issue.

In some parts of the world, including the Middle East, the first step of carton collection has yet to be addressed, Toikka acknowledged. “Sorting and collection requires cooperative effort,” he said, with Tetra Pak being on the lookout for allies.

Collection first

The opportunity for increased postconsumer packaging collection was a recurring theme at the 2014 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference Middle East.

Sana’a Al-Ghemlas of Kuwait Packing Materials Manufacturing Co. said her PET bottle recycling firm is constantly seeking more feedstock for its recycling line.

Al-Ghemlas said prorecycling government policies and recycling habits are lacking in many parts of the Middle East. In the region, the No. 1 recycling code stamped on water and soft drink bottles to many people “means you can use it only once,” she quipped.

Kuwait is about the size of New Jersey but only about 8 percent of the land is occupied, said Al-Ghemlas. Nonetheless, the nation is home to 16 landfills and it spends some $85 million per year on solid waste disposal. She estimated that some 10,000 tons per year of PET bottles are “thrown away” in Kuwait, despite the existence of her company’s PET recycling operation.

Although Al-Ghemlas expressed doubt concerning the Kuwait government’s lack of attention to recycling collection, Stuart Fleming, founding partner and CEO of Dubai-based Enviroserve, said working with the government of Dubai to help draft recycling-friendly legislation has been a good experience for his company.

Fleming said he helped draft a mobile phone recycling law that has subsequently been adopted in Dubai. Fleming pointed to this as an outcome that was preferable to complaining.

When a product or package has a low recycling rate, “We can blame others or the government,” said Fleming, but ultimately individuals are responsible for making purchasing decisions or taking actions that can increase recycling rates.

Fleming said one of Enviroserve’s latest initiatives, being conducted in cooperation with the Dubai Municipality government, is “The Green Truck,” a collection truck for household recyclables, such as paper, plastic bottles and aluminum beverage cans as well as obsolete electronics.

Fleming said the truck is seeking customers in targeted residential areas. “We’ve got 150 households signed up, and we get a couple of calls per day.” He called it part of an effort “to create a recycling system at homes and offices. I’m excited. I’m investing in it.”

Considering the global trends toward sustainability and product stewardship, recyclers in the Middle East region may have good reason to invest in the growth of postconsumer packaging recycling.


The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at