Is U.S. Recycling at a Tipping Point?

  • February 14, 2022
Different types of used plastic packaging arranged on a yellow background

We’re all too familiar with the upending of global supply chains due to various pandemic pressures. But another market is under stress: recycled polymer materials. High demand from environmentally conscious brands is undercut by lagging supplies of post-consumer recycled content.

Growing environmental awareness raises recycled material demand

There’s growing pressure from stakeholders for the increased use of “sustainable” or more environmentally friendly materials. Whether their motivation is to help achieve corporate sustainability goals, retailer scorecards or even improved brand image, these pressures have risen simultaneously, adding to demand pressure. For packaging engineers engaged in design, the top packaging attributes have historically been material cost and product protection. These two attributes haven’t lost their importance, but the drive for the increased use of sustainable materials has rapidly gained traction.

There’s more than one path to sustainability

There are many approaches to increasing sustainable materials, such as designing out expanded polystyrene (EPS) for product protection or switching to mono-materials — materials that only consist of one polymer or fiber type, instead of a combination — for ease of recyclability. However, one of the most popular approaches is to increase post-consumer or post-industrial recycled (PCR/PIR) content percentages. The use of recycled content is increasing in the paper/corrugated marketplace. Much of this recycled content goes back into packaging materials, and reliable supplies of 100% recycled-content boards are available today.

Unfortunately, recycled flexible and rigid plastic doesn’t typically go back into packaging but is downcycled. For example, carpet fibers are the typical reuse case of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) from water and soda bottles. In contrast, milk jugs’ high-density polyethylene (HDPE) often goes into more durable goods such as plastic lumber instead of packaging.

The threats to the recycling system are complex and far-ranging

On the supply side, China’s 2018 “National Sword” policy banning the import of recyclables — plastic in particular — threw U.S. recycling systems into chaos. At the time, China processed nearly 50% of the world’s recyclable waste. Before National Sword, China was willing to accept and process our dirty recycling stream, but now the acceptable contamination rate is less than or equal to 0.5%.

A dirty recycling stream produces bales of any particular polymer type, whether PET or HDPE, contaminated with other polymers or even non-polymers. These contaminants make it challenging for processing facilities to produce high-quality, high-purity recycled polymer products. As a result, waste material containing high contamination levels is nearly impossible to process back into usable packaging materials.

China’s National Sword policy led to a crash in the American recycling marketplace. The U.S. didn’t have sufficient processing capacity for the materials produced by municipal recycling facilities (MRFs). As a result, most recyclables ended up either in landfills or incinerators for many months. In addition, U.S. processing facilities required higher quality, cleaner bales than the MRFs could reliably produce at the time. The consequences were most keenly felt for bales of plastic materials; metals, glass and paper are much easier to separate and keep “clean.”

Further complicating supply is the recycling system itself, in essence, controlled and managed by individual local municipalities. Depending on the locality and its proximity to a sufficiently large population, there may not be adequate feedstocks to develop and operate MRFs. An additional challenge for operating MRFs in rural areas is the cost of transporting the output to processing facilities typically located near large urban centers.

The tipping point nears and what you can do in the meantime

With the increased demand and new markets for recycled polymer materials, this could be an economic inflection point that could drive new national standards for the recycling industry. However, without national standards and investments in associated material separation technologies, the marketplace looks to be under-prepared for the coming demand. On the front end, national standards are needed for what is collected, how it’s separated and output quality.

Until these standards are in place and supply begins to meet the growing demand, a packaging designer can move toward greater use of recycled materials in three main ways:

  1. Reconsider the materials that have been selected for your product(s) and work toward more mono-material structures
  2. Open a dialog with suppliers to better understand the local availability of recycling feedstock
  3. Begin with a limited subset of your packaging materials for structures for which you have a high-confidence second source if your primary source of recycled content becomes unstable.

The recycling system continues with the same challenges and constraints without considering upfront material selection. Understanding the material’s end-of-life and the ease (or lack thereof) with which it makes its way through the recycling process will result in higher yields of reusable, recycled materials.

Switching current packaging materials to mono-materials is the first step towards recycling a higher percentage of your packaging. Further, cleaner streams arriving at the MRFs will help recyclers produce cleaner bales, increasing the availability of PCR materials.

You’ll find that material suppliers are often the most accessible source of market conditions on the availability of PCR materials. Therefore, communicating your needs and goals to increase PCR use in your packaging designs will help your supplier aggregate demand to establish and open new supply channels.

In the end, the key to a successful journey to including more PCR in your designs is to start slowly, choose a package that can be dual-sourced, and then continue to other products as your supply increases and stabilizes. With more thoughtful consideration of material selection upfront, the recycling industry could well be at a tipping point for economic prosperity.

— By Eric Carlson

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