The recycling landscape continues to respond to changes in plastic packaging as well as collection and processing bottlenecks, according to presentations at the 2022 Plastics Recycling Conference, held March 7–9 at National Harbor, Md.

On March 7, the U.S. Plastics Pact released its Baseline Report, publishing aggregated data from its member organizations—of which ISRI is one—in 2020, the year the organization was founded. The pact is made up of businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and research institutions working toward a common vision of a circular economy for plastics, outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Initiative.

“The Baseline Report puts a stake in the ground in terms of where we are and starts flagging areas where we need some work,” notes Emily Tipaldo, the pact’s executive director. She points out that 13.3% is the U.S. recycling rate for plastic, while pact members report using only 7% postconsumer recycled or biobased content.

Initial progress showed in the Baseline Report includes:

  • Shifts away from non-recyclable plastic packaging toward packaging that is more easily captured and recycled with higher value;
  • Increased use of postconsumer recycled content (PCR) in plastic packaging;
  • Improved technologies and increased use of technology to make the recycling process more efficient;
  • Pilots of innovative and accessible reuse models; and,
  • Enhanced communication to help more Americans better understand how to recycle plastic packaging.

The pact’s consumer packaged goods, retailer, and converter activators produce 33% of plastic packaging in the U.S. by weight. More than 100 businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and research institutions have joined the pact and are using four targets to address plastic waste at its source by 2025:

  • Name certain packaging as problematic or unnecessary by 2021 and take measures to eliminate items on the list by 2025.
  • By 2025, all plastic packaging is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
  • By 2025, undertake ambitious actions to effectively recycle or compost 50% of plastic packaging.
  • By 2025, achieve an average of 30% recycled content or responsibly sourced biobased content in plastic packaging.

“We are encouraged by the pact’s support for policy measures that will enable reuse, recycling, and composting infrastructure across the U.S.,” Tipaldo says. “Post-commercial material is also within the scope of the pact. There’s an area for recyclers to get involved with advocacy, and that’s something ISRI does really well.”

The World Wildlife Fund’s Resource Footprint Tracker gathered data from pact members, and members will report progress toward the four targets annually. “As a manufacturer and recycler of plastic packaging and film, we design solutions to be part of the circular economy,” says Cherish Miller, vice president, sustainability & public affairs at Little Rock, Ark.-based Revolution. “As a recycler, we need to make it work.” ISRI member Revolution recently received a Letter of No Objection from the Food and Drug Administration for its proprietary PCR linear low-density polyethylene (PCR-LLDPE) film at content levels up to 100% for food-contact applications, and plans to ramp up production in the next 12–18 months.

The plastics industry is evolving its product design to make sure products align with existing recycling infrastructure and then to meet a goal: make products that can be recycled many times into products with the same quality as the first version. That goal begins with design—and brand owners have vastly expanded their thinking.

“We start early on in ideation, looking at what are the different packaging choices and substrate choices we can make to impact the recyclability of our products,” explains Sarah Curran, manager of strategic packaging initiatives at household cleaning brands owner S.C. Johnson & Son. “We have essentially a recyclability assessment tool that looks at score carding our packaging and how it falls into the recycling structure. Then, we also look at [designing] our components to be reused multiple times.”

Nestlé has “plastic champions” in its design teams, explains John Caturano, the food and drink giant’s national recycling manager–North America procurement. In 2018 Nestlé opened its Institute of Packaging Science in Vevey, Switzerland, to examine how to produce packaging that emerging technologies for recycling could process. “Material science will take us so far, but it’s the infrastructure that at some point has to help us move some things as well,” Caturano says.

Photos courtesy of Dan Hockensmith. Featured image caption: The U.S. Plastics Pact’s Emily Tipaldo, Michael Hodges of Amcor, Revolution’s Cherish Miller, and Chris Dow of International Recycling Group discuss the future of plastics circularity at the Plastics Recycling Conference. Body image caption: Megan Beyers of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), Nestlé’s John Caturano, APR COO Curt Cozart, and SC Johnson’s Sarah Curran review best practices in designing plastic products for recycling.

 

Dan Hockensmith

Dan Hockensmith

I'm a native Ohioan who since 2014 has called Maryland home. My background includes print, broadcast, and digital journalism; government contracting; marketing communications; and nonprofit advocacy.