“Teamwork makes the dream work” was the dominant theme at the Packaging Recycling Summit in Atlanta last week. Speakers dove into the importance of partnerships to improve domestic packaging recycling efforts and overcome leading barriers, such as consumer confusion.
“Partnerships are going to be really important, because ... these issues are huge,” said Rebecca Marquez, director of custom research at PMMI (The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies). “There's a lot of people that play a part in these issues, and it's going to be impossible for one set of people — CPGs, OEMs, recyclers — to do everything on their own.”
Marquez highlighted the importance of collaboration at a time when sustainability efforts are transforming the packaging industry. “Change is not coming. It’s here, and it’s really, really rapid,” she said.
Underscoring that point, she shared data from PMMI surveys of CPGs and contract packagers this year assessing how often they’re changing packaging materials. In January, 58% said they changed materials less than once per year, 30% said one to two times per year and 3% said more than six times per year. When asked the same question again at Pack Expo in Las Vegas in September, 18% said they now change materials more than six times per year.
“That is incredible,” Marquez said. “To change the materials on a line is extremely complicated.”
But as materials change, that affects stakeholders down the value chain, including recyclers.
“Recyclers don't want to take in materials that they can't resell into a market,” Marquez said. “We’ve got to work together to create new markets. We have to work together to innovate what goes on at sortation facilities.”
Collaborating on recycling involves improved messaging and education for consumers, who regularly report confusion with current recycling systems. That confusion often results in consumers not participating in recycling programs or trying to recycle the wrong materials, which increases contamination, speakers said. That’s a problem considering “end users are really demanding higher quality material,” according to Jeff Snyder, director of recycling at Ohio-based Rumpke Waste & Recycling.
Further illustrating consumer confusion, 70% of plastic packaging materials whose resin codes are one, two and five go to the landfill in the United States today, Snyder said, despite Rumpke repeatedly putting out the message that it wants those materials. “The big struggle for us is just people not understanding the process and not understanding what to do.”
Along with that, some brand and packaging manufacturer decisions create confusion for consumers and trouble for MRFs. They should keep materials simple and “stop making Franken-plastic,” or multi-resin, multi-layer materials, because it “doesn’t help us. The consumer doesn’t get it,” said Peter Adrian, recycling coordinator at the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County, Illinois. “[Consumers] don’t know that film in a flexible pack has seven layers of plastic in it” and think it looks all the same and is recyclable.
Trying to handle certain multilayer materials “can contaminate our screen” and removing that adds cost, said Jane Fridley De Bigit, procurement and sales manager at Minnesota-based film recycler Myplas USA. “Also, anything biodegradable, if you put that into a recycling stream, that contaminates the whole run.”
Another example is that PET water bottles, which are widely recyclable in curbside programs, don’t always get identified in a MRF if they are completely covered in film shrink wrap labels rather than a smaller label. In those cases, an optical sorter senses only the film wrap and doesn’t recognize the item as a PET bottle, said Joy Rifkin, sustainability manager at Illinois-based recycler LRS.
“We talk to packaging designers to say, if you’re going to use a soft plastic label, don’t cover the whole bottle,” she said. In messaging for consumers “we say, ‘If it’s soft plastic you can smash, it goes in the trash,’” or to film drop-off sites.
Despite MRF operators adding increasingly sophisticated equipment and robotics to their facilities, machinery can’t do it all. Speakers pointed out that humans along the value chain still have to do their part to improve recycling, and working together generates better results than working in silos. They suggested that brands and packaging manufacturers partner with recyclers from the get-go during product design to mitigate issues down the line — especially as brands switch materials to help meet sustainability goals.
Procter and Gamble regularly collaborates with Rumpke to test if and how certain packaging can make it through the MRF before releasing a new or redesigned version. For example, they partnered on a pilot project that affixed radiofrequency identification, or RFID, tags to certain products, like deodorant containers, and “the whole idea is [to find out] where do they go in the MRF, what happens to them, do they go where they’re supposed to go and can they be recovered?” said Snyder.
Substrate switches away from plastic and toward alternatives like fiber are occurring more as brands aim to fulfill their sustainability commitment goals, according to Mark Agerton, group scientist on P&G’s responsible packaging R&D team. Collaborating across the value chain is necessary to ensure that not only can packaging make it through existing collection and sortation systems, but also that desirable, stable end markets exist for the materials.
P&G also realizes that mechanical recycling isn’t viable for every application, and it’s therefore exploring opportunities for advanced recycling, or chemical recycling, especially for drug or food-safe packaging, Agerton said.
“We’re trying to bring these materials all back in,” he said. “We're trying to partner to understand what's happening at the commercial level so that we can start driving that innovation.”