The plastic packaging waste situation is projected to get worse.
The world currently produces 430 million tons of plastics a year, two-thirds of which are short-lived products that then become waste. Research by University of Cádiz, Spain, in 2021 found plastic packaging from takeaway food and drink dominate litter. This situation is set to get worse on current trends, with production estimated to triple by 2060.
UNEP’s latest report estimates that over the next 20 years, cutting plastic pollution by 80% would prevent damage valued at more than $3 trillion, including impacts on health, climate, air pollution, the ocean environment not to mention legal costs for cases brought against plastic companies.
In particular, the 80% cut would prevent 500 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year, the report estimated, about the same as the emissions of Canada. This shift could also lead to a net increase of 700,000 jobs by 2040, mostly in low-income countries.
Everyone knows we need to rethink the way we use plastic packaging.
Our focus must be on how to maximize plastics’ lifecycle by leveraging plastic’s benefits and strategically manage the material’s end-of-life options.
Addressing the recovery and recycling of plastic packaging would make a fundamental difference to reducing our carbon emissions. Yet we remain stuck on how best to achieve this.
I believe our current approach to recycling plastic packaging is one of the biggest hurdles we must overcome.
If we don’t update our perspective on recycling, the industry’s circular economy efforts will have little to no meaningful impact.
The current definition of recycling centers on converting materials from used products into new materials for other products. Historically this has been recycling into lower-value products.
Now we have the technological capacity to go one major step further — and this is where we could make a transformational shift. Instead of merely recycling, we should be re-looping used products into high-quality materials and turning them into high-value products.
This would simultaneously reduce waste and our reliance on virgin resources.
To pivot from recycling to re-looping requires turning used products back into equal value products. Instead of recycling plastic packaging to achieve commodity resins, we would re-loop plastic packaging into the highest quality resins possible.
This is not a play on words, it’s a fundamental shift in mindset.
Currently there is a disconnect between what brand owners and retailers are putting onto the market and what they require to meet their sustainability goals, namely high-quality recyclate.
This disconnect is causing chaos and confusion. Instead of brands spending their resources on so-called green solutions that overload rather than simplify recycling from paper wrappers for confectionery bars to plastic-lined paper bottles, the emphasis should be on acknowledging that what they put on the market is what they will get back.
KPMG recently flagged up a rather obvious fact that insufficient plastic waste volumes are reaching sorting facilities. The main culprit? Lack of effective pre-sorting. While it is true that we need to increase recovery rates, boosting the pre-sorting infrastructure alone will achieve very little.
What we need is to go back to the plastic packaging design drawing board to really make a difference. A paradigm shift in the current design guidelines for circular packaging has the potential to transform recycling rates. The guideline alterations I recommend will enable us to re-loop rather than recycle, thereby reducing waste, our carbon footprint and our drain on valuable resources.
What does re-looping entail?
For re-looping to succeed, it’s vital that products are designed so that the materials can be re-used in the same or equivalent products. This should be done using existing recycling technologies located in the markets where the products are sold.
We need a greater drive toward closing loop cycles for products as this will address the uncontrolled contamination challenge and therefore enhance circular destinations.
Design for re-looping.
Closed loop cycles for products would ensure freedom from contamination and circular destinations for re-looped materials. To ensure products are designed for multiple re-looping in every way, both the stabilizing and processing additives would need to be optimized to comply with the FDA- and EFSA-approved list for materials and additives used in food contact.
Focus on mono-materials.
Mono-materials or mixed materials of the same type facilitate recyclers’ work because they don’t downgrade the properties of the recycled plastic. And they can be sorted and then processed as if they were a single material. One such example is lidding films, which need to be completely removable. Currently, aluminum foil lids found for example on yoghurt cups pose a serious problem due to residual foil on the rims of plastic cup rims. This is despite the best efforts to remove the lid prior to recycling. Switching to same-polymer lidding such as polypropylene foil is strongly recommended.
Stuck on adhesives.
The adhesives used for the labels should be designed for easy removal during recycling to ensure no adhesives remain on the packaging as found on the FDA approved list. The adhesives should be selected to comply with printing industry and FDA guidelines to ensure they are free of potentially hazardous substances.
Close look at inks.
Direct printing of inks onto plastics should be avoided unless their removal can be assured according to approved recycling/re-looping protocols. Inks should be removed as particulates and not by washing or dissolution into water.
Every element of a package must come under scrutiny, which brings me to pigments in packaging, that could play a dynamic role in aiding sorting.
Natural colors boost recycling.
Packaging pigment colors are used purely for branding purposes, yet colors interfere with the mechanical recycling process. Natural, unpigmented polymers have the highest recycling value and the widest variety of end uses.
If colors were used for sorting packaging categories rather than for branding purposes, recycling as we know it would be simplified almost overnight.
Imagine a world where all food is contained in clear or white plastic packaging to ensure safe and efficient re-looping of food-grade applications. This would leave pastel colors for household goods and cleaning products. All toxic products could be contained in packaging pigmented with carbon black or NIR-detectable black to ensure exclusion from food applications during recycling and re-looping.
A deep dive into the how of plastic packaging re-looping.
The supporting strategies to re-loop products into new high-quality material and applications will need to be well thought-through and robust.
Starting with improved product design and decoration to ensure re-looping simplicity, followed by sorting of packaging by a sequence of NIR/VIS/AI/markers.
In-mold labels (IMLs) should be removable, thus there must be an ink removal washing stage and a flake-sorting sequence prior to re-looping processes.
Also needed is decontamination for volatiles and other molecules that have migration potential.
Likewise, high-performance traceability of inputs and blending for uniformity and consistency will be key to test materials and products and avoid crossover of resins and grades. Modern machine-vision systems and artificial intelligence can help identify the composition of the incoming materials before and after sortation, providing essential data on the freedom-from-contamination and the need for sorting and recycling process adjustments.
Contrary to popular belief, adopting the re-looping approach for packaging design does not mean brand owners and retailers will have to relinquish the cohesive visual language they rely on to reflect brand values or positioning or the target market and consumer. It will mean, however, extending the design requirements of their packaging and taking the key facets mentioned above into account.
A solution for a complex recycling conundrum.
Embracing the concept of re-looping using these upgraded packaging design guidelines will help brands navigate what currently appears to be a complex recycling conundrum.
We can no longer expect that recyclers will somehow solve all the problems. We need to take a collaborative approach, and this does mean universally adopting revised packaging design guidelines that boost the re-looping concept.
Packaging designers, brand owners, manufacturers, marketers, and recyclers can’t afford to work in silos. Neither can they afford to sit back and wait for some shiny new tech to solve all the issues.
Re-looping is not a fancy new buzz word, it’s an urgent pointer to the way the world must approach everything produced. Failing to do so risks jeopardizing our efforts to keep our carbon footprint within a livable range. If we shun changing the way we design packaging voluntarily, we may have to learn how to adapt to far more serious changes around the world.
Edward Kosior, PhD., has more than 45 years’ plastics recycling expertise, split between 23 years as an academic and 23 years working in the industry. Kosior has been instrumental in designing numerous modern recycling plants and patented recycling.