ISRI2019: Packaging innovations that support recycling
From left: Glenn May of Clorox, Kelly Cramer of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, John Caturano of Nestle Waters North America and Jonathan Levy of ISRI

ISRI2019: Packaging innovations that support recycling

Speakers share their efforts to increase the recovery of and recycled content used in packaging.

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April 17, 2019

Single-use plastic packaging has been identified as public enemy No. 1 largely because of the environmental pollution that results when this material is mismanaged after it has fulfilled its initial purpose. Knowing this, a number of consumer packaged goods companies have made commitments to increase the recovery of their packaging and its recycled content.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington, recently recognized Stamford, Connecticut-based Nestlé Waters North America (NWNA) as its 2019 Design for Recycling (DFR) award winner. ISRI gives the annual award to the most innovative contribution to products designed with recycling in mind. The organization says it recognized NWNA for the design of its Nestlé Pure Life 700-milliliter bottle made from 100 percent recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET).

John Caturano of NWNA was among the speakers to address attendees of the session Increasing Recycling Through Packaging Innovation during the Residential Recycling Summit, which was part of ISRI’s annual convention, ISRI2019, in Los Angeles April 8-11.

Caturano said he was “very proud about award we are going to get shortly,” referencing the DRF award that ISRI would present to NWNA President and CEO Fernando Mercé during the conference’s final session later that day, April 11.

Caturano showed photos of plastics that had accumulated on beaches and in the ocean, saying the photos “touch you, they bother you.” He added, “They are not what we want to see, but they’re real.”

Young people are seeing the images and responding, Caturano said. “There’s a plastic guilt thing going on,” he said, adding that problems arise when PET is mismanaged. “But it’s a local resource when it’s managed properly.”  

To ensure the recyclability of its packaging, NWNA looks at “reuse first” during the design phase, Caturano said, by asking the question, “Will I be able to bring that packaging back through the system and be able to use it again?”

He said this objective can sometimes be lost often because “there are a lot of creative people in marketing that want to do great things but it’s not always great for recycling.”

Six billion pounds of PET containers go out in the market annually, Caturano said. Only 2 billion pounds get collected for recycling, while 4 billion pounds go to landfill or incineration. “No one really knows how much packaging is lost because of bad design.”

NWNA uses the Association of Plastic Recyclers’ design guidelines, which Caturano said he felt was an underused resource.

Not only do brand owners need to consider whether a package is recyclable, Caturano said, they also must consider whether it is detrimental to recycling.

NWNA has committed to using 25 percent recycled plastic across its U.S. domestic portfolio by 2021 and 50 percent by 2025. The company also has committed to making 100 percent of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.

The challenges the company sees in reaching its recycled content goals include insufficient resource recovery in the U.S., Caturano said, as well as “quality access to recycling.” He described such access as being on par with the ease of garbage disposal. “And only 30 percent of Americans have that. There is a lot of focus that has to go into improving that piece of the system so we can get more materials back into the supply chain,” Caturano continued.

He also cited the lack of demand for recycled or renewable materials in the packaging sector as part of the problem. “That’s why carpet makers take about 50 or 60 percent of material. Of the 2 billion pounds [of PET] that gets collected, only about a quarter of it is for food-grade quality,” Caturano said. “And I can say that is probably because the bottlers have not shown enough interest in it for the long haul.”  

Plastic reclaimers “are not large organizations,” he said, and need a lot of support. “Good procurement is really good coaching,” Caturano continued, pointing to the role of companies like his in helping to mature the rPET sector.

NWNA works closely with rPET supplier CarbonLite and has invested in that company’s three facilities in California, Texas and its newest one in Pennsylvania, which is under construction.

“It’s about long-term contracts so the folks in that business can go out and make real long-term investments,” he said.

Caturano recognized the How2Recycle label from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) as a good tool to help consumers recycle better given that the U.S. lacks a universal approach to recycling. “This labeling is a very effective tool, and I think it works really well.”

Representing the SPC, Charlottesville, Virginia, and How2Recycle during the session was Kelly Cramer. She said the label, which was introduced in 2012, “helps brands help recycling” by telling consumers what to do with every piece of a package.

A custom recyclability assessment is performed for all packages that apply to use the label. This assessment looks at everything from collection to sortation, reprocessing and end markets, Cramer said, to give a “complete package picture.”

She said How2Recycle, which includes a store drop-off label and a not-yet-recycled label, helps reduce contamination. Of the labels that have been issued, 53 percent feature easy instructions for recycling, while 30 percent are do not recycle labels.

“Sixty-seven percent of people assume a package isn’t recyclable if they don’t see a label on it,” Cramer said. She also noted that 54 percent of consumers say the labels have helped them change their behavior.

Part of How2Recycle’s mission is Improving packaging design. The organization’s member platform offers tracking, measurement and suggestions for improving a brand’s packaging portfolio. “If we tell a company there is room for improvement, we give them specifics on what they can do,” Cramer said.

Glenn May of The Clorox Co., Oakland, California, detailed his company’s 2020 eco goals, which include providing clear on-package recycling instructions using the How2Recycle label on all of its U.S. retail packaging. Additionally, the company wants to make 90 percent of its packaging recyclable and to eliminate all polyvinyl chloride (PVC) packaging.

Among the challenges to recycling for Clorox that May outlined were opaque PET, black rigid containers, shrink sleeve labels, laminates and multiresin components. The reasons these materials are used can range from the barrier properties they offer to ease of production to a lack of single-material options.    

He said transitioning away from these challenging packaging components could take two to six years, depending on the technical challenges involved.  

In the case of flexible plastic packaging, potential food spoilage issues that arise from transitioning to monolayer packaging could dwarf recycling-related issues, May said. “We want to be careful on choosing lower performing [packages] and actually move the needle on performance to match what we have today but using something that is more recyclable.”

He also mentioned the potential role that compatibilizers could play in increasing the recyclability of laminate packaging by making one polymer behave more like another polymer that is included in that packaging so they essentially behave like a monomer during the recycling process. “We haven’t seen that brought to us as a commercially viable solution yet.”

May acknowledge the benefit of collaborating with recyclers. “We think there are opportunities for us to learn a lot more from folks in the recycling industry. We are building a design guide now for the company and would love input—good accurate information on what today is recyclable, what are the pain points and challenges—so that we can help our myriad of engineers who are designing packaging every day to make sure they are working off the latest play sheet.”