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Commentary: Creating a circular economy requires advocacy and activism from all sectors

Efforts are underway in all sectors to improve the recyclability, reusability and sustainability of plastic packaging.

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With global warming continuing to rise, reversing climate change through sustainable practices has become increasingly vital to the health of the planet. Sustainability initiatives can be found in nearly every industry, including plastic packaging. While single-use plastics are scrutinized for contributing to the upward global warming potential (GWP) trajectory and for being a source of litter, efforts are underway in all sectors to improve the recyclability, reusability and sustainability of plastic packaging.

State of recycling

Curbside recycling currently recovers only 32 percent of available recyclables generated in single-family homes. This leaves massive and immediate opportunity for growth to support the economy, address climate change and keep recyclables out of landfills.

China, which had long been the world’s largest destination for paper, plastic and other recyclables, phased in import restrictions beginning in January 2018. This led to a crippling of the infrastructure required to support domestic recycling efforts as the country transitioned from exporting certain recyclables to China to finding local or other international buyers. Despite shifting exports to other countries, many U.S. recyclers have shuttered their operations. The COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of challenges as many local municipalities temporarily closed their curbside recycling programs.

Replacing China—the largest consumer of global recyclables—is not an easy undertaking. Helping U.S. curbside recycling take the next steps in capturing an estimated 37.4 million tons of commodities requires the application of broad and systemic interventions to achieve its full potential and feed a circular economy.

Legislation driving best practices

Recently, legislative activity seeking to address deficiencies in  U.S. recycling infrastructure has increased. Some legislation is targeting grants for recycling education, while other legislation is taking a more comprehensive approach with a heavy focus on regulating single-use plastics or their collection.

In September 2020, California passed legislation requiring all plastic bottles covered by the state’s container redemption program average at least 15 percent postconsumer recycled resin starting in 2022. The required amount of postconsumer recycled resin increases to 25 percent by 2025 and to 50 percent by 2030. Other states are expected to follow this groundbreaking legislation.

Another item that appears frequently in draft legislation is the development of producer responsibility organizations (PROs). These organizations are authorized or financed by a group of producers to take on the responsibility of collecting and managing product waste. PROs often are a component of extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs, which require producers to be responsible for the treatment and disposal of postconsumer products.

But, in all these cases, program success still relies on consumer behavior to recycle products properly.

Not all plastic is created equal

While lawmakers are striving to make a difference with recycling best practices, it also is important for companies to manufacture products that are highly recyclable. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), only products for which 60 percent of the public have access to recycling programs should legitimately be labeled as recyclable by consumer goods companies and retailers. Plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET, or No. 1) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or No. 2) plastic bottles and jugs meet that threshold and are considered widely recyclable.

Educating the consumer

Currently, only half of Americans have automatic access to curbside recycling. Some who do have access do not participate fully, while others do not participate at all. Organizations including the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition through its How2Recycle label are committed to helping manufacturers and brands reduce the confusion around recycling best practices.

APR’s Design Guide for Plastic Recyclability sets standards for packaging companies and brands to maximize recyclability. How2Recycle’s goal is to create a nationally recognized label that enables companies to convey to consumers how to recycle a package.

It is critical that the APR and How2Recycle are aligned to ensure that products that are recyclable are labeled as such. Divergence between them could lead to increased confusion at the consumer level.

Reducing food waste

Manufacturing, packaging and distributing food require many natural resources, including water, land and fuel. When that food is wasted, all the resources that went into the production and distribution are wasted, as well. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in the U.S. is wasted.

While food waste may seem like a problem independent of plastic packaging, they are closely intertwined. If food waste were its

own country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas-emitting country in the world.

Plastic packaging helps mitigate food waste by preserving perishable foods, lengthening their shelf life and reducing product loss from breakage. This helps consumers, retailers and the food service industry save money and reduce waste.

Increasing recyclability of packaging

When it comes to sustainability, the goal for packaging manufacturers should be threefold: produce bottles and containers that are highly recyclable, increase the amount of postconsumer resin used and reduce the carbon footprint of the package. While manufacturers can produce containers that are 100 percent recyclable, issues such as barriers, closures, labels and colorants can create other recycling challenges.

It is important packaging is viewed from a “whole bottle” perspective, so when brands and suppliers are making buying decisions, they are considering other elements that may affect the recyclability of the packaging. For example, the wrong colorant (too dark) can render an otherwise recyclable package nonrecyclable because most recycling systems use infrared sorters, which cannot see black or near black. Recently, advancements in colorants have helped to overcome this issue but requires brand adoption to incorporate.

Texture takes on reusability

Because most reusable bottles are rejected for cosmetic reasons, companies are exploring ways to cut down on their “used” appearance. Bottles could be rejected for several reasons, but the most common is scuffing on the exterior of the bottle, which lowers its shelf appeal.

New technology incorporates texture that takes on the appearance of bubbles while helping to eliminate scratches and scuffs on areas of the bottle where they commonly occur. On average, these bottles are reused 17 times and are designed to be reused up to 25 times. When tested, these textured bottles showed 75 percent less scuffing than nontextured bottles and, therefore, allow the reusable bottle to be kept in the system for much longer.

Where is your plastic coming from?

Much like farm-to-table restaurants, traceability has become vital to plastic manufacturing. Consumers not only want to know that packaging is made from recycled materials, they also want to understand the origins of the recycled material. Plastic manufacturers and converters are helping brands tell their sustainability story by tracing recycled plastics to the source—be it ocean-bound, postconsumer or postindustrial.

The APR grants certification to recycling centers that can provide accurate traceability of their plastics. Vetted companies receive a certificate of compliance that ensures third-party verification and provides a significant amount of transparency and credibility to brands and consumers.

Delivering measurable value

Developing packaging solutions that offer the lowest environmental impact requires an investment from all stakeholders. Legislators must adopt policies that encourage recycling at all levels of the supply chain. Consumers need to embrace recycling best practices and become advocates for recycling in their communities.

Retailers also must push for sustainable packaging on their shelves. Brands must continue to embrace APR designed packaging and How2Recycle labeling on their bottles and containers. Finally, manufacturers must continue to push the boundaries of recycled content in their packaging. These concerted efforts will help bring about greater circularity and a more sustainable planet for future generations.

Tracee Auld is chief sustainability officer and chief general counsel and Balaji Jayaseelan is director of sustainability and regulatory affairs at Graham Packaging Co., Lancaster, Pennsylvania.