Over the past few years, there has been a growing trend of major brand owners making public commitments to use or transition to recyclable packaging. A simple Google search on “recyclable commitments”, shows several notable and large multi-national companies including the likes of Keurig Green Mountain, Starbucks, and Nestle Waters, that have made these commitments. The commitments are typically in response to growing consumer and retailer pressures for environmentally friendly products and packaging. However, they are increasingly being driven by growing pressure from waste management service providers (government and private) that cannot keep up with growing waste issues created with the introduction of lighter and more complex packaging. Several local governments have even gone as far as passing legislation to ban “difficult-to-recycle” materials, such as plastic bags and expanded polystyrene (EPS).

These mega trends driven by governments and consumers have forced packaging suppliers and brand owners to consider the end of life management of their packaging and ensure they can be recycled or face reputational and regulatory risks.

So what does it take to get recycled?

For a recyclable packaging to actually get recycled, four key components needs to be in place:

  • awareness that the packaging is recyclable
  • access for consumers to recycle (e.g. collection infrastructure)
  • capacity for recycling facilities to sort the packaging (e.g. Material Recovery Facility, aka MRF)
  • end market demand for the sorted package (e.g. secondary treatment facilities)

Missing any one of these components would mean the material will likely end up in a landfill and will not be recycled.

In terms of importance, having viable buyers and end markets is critical in ensuring a material will get recycled. If there are limited end markets, low commodity value, difficulty in meeting buyers’ specifications, or if collection hinders the ability to sort other recyclable materials, then a MRF will not sort the material. If the material is not being sorted, then there is no benefit to providing access to collect the material, which then requires municipalities to inform residents not to place the packaging into their recycling bins.

What can brand owners do?

Develop End-Markets and Buyers

As a starting point, brand owners must ensure viable end markets exist for their packaging. Multiple end markets must exist and they should be able to withstand downturns in the economy. To ensure viable end markets, brand owners can either undertake their own initiatives or work with the various associations that represent the many companies involved within the recycling supply chain.

Invest in Sorting Facilities

Once viable end markets are established, investments may need to be made to ensure sorting facilities are able to effectively sort the packages. Many brand owners fall into the trap of testing the sortation of their packaging in a couple of test facilities, and use that as their basis to promote recyclability. However, every MRF tends to be unique with many factors (e.g. single vs dual stream, automated vs manual) that affect its ability to sort material.

Grow Collection Infrastructure

Once the sorting technology and capacity is in place, municipalities can begin to collect the recyclable packages through their collection infrastructure. Curbside programs typically have higher recycling rates as it provides a more convenient service to consumers. The Recycling Partnership, a non-profit, was established to promote and provide funding for municipalities looking to improve curbside collection services. However, curbside collection is not always the most cost effective way to collect materials. For example, the WRAP program was developed to collect plastic film through a network of drop-off depots. This eliminates the need to invest at the MRF to sort the material, as film tends to require significant resources to sort through a curbside collection program and has lower quality due to increased contamination.

Promote the Recyclability

A common misconception is that the chasing arrows found on most plastics with a number, means that the packaging is recyclable. The arrows are meant to provide the Resin Identification Code and not necessarily the recyclability of a package. What further complicates this issue, is that even materials that are commonly recycled still need to be prepared correctly to be recycled. For example, PET typically have high recovery rates but are not recyclable if they are not emptied of their contents. Similarly, black plastics, regardless of the resin number are not recyclable as current sorting technologies are not able to differentiate the resin code.

To address this issue, brand owners must work with the local municipalities and waste management companies to ensure their messaging is consistent. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) developed a standardized labeling system (How2Recycle) to provide clear and consistent messaging to consumers on how to prepare a package for recycling (e.g. should bottle caps be left on?). Standardized labelling helps for materials that are commonly recyclable. However, for newer packaging types, the label often requires consumers to check with their local service providers. If brand owners do not work with local municipalities, it is likely the materials will not be promoted to consumers as being recyclable.

In order to ensure that recyclable materials will get truly recycled, brand owners must commit internal resources, beyond any membership fees paid to associations. Often associations need to cater to a broad and diverse group of companies, and may not always push the recyclability of one individual member given their scale. A coordinated effort of all stakeholders involved, including internal and external, is required to ensure the recycling of materials.

In addition, with an increasing demand for sustainability related transparency and accountability, producers will need to realize that they are being watched and that any claims related to environmental performance should be adequately backed up. It is hence key to ensure that they set realistic and achievable recycling targets. A lack of follow up, including performance monitoring and measurement as to where their products and packaging actually ends up can lead to accusations of green washing – the last thing marketing and legal departments need.