Recycling Effort Faces Headwinds
With brand owners under duress to reduce packaging and the use of plastics in particular, it is exciting to see how industry is responding to this environmental crisis. Daily, we see reports of new mono-material packaging capable of being recycled, biodegradable films, coatings to replace films in laminated structures, advances in chemical recycling and the use of artificial intelligence in sorting materials for recycling. The industry is going all-out to attack the problem.
In recent years, the idea of a circular economy has come to the forefront of this movement. Based on the principles of reduction, reuse and recycling, it is theorized that a circular economy can be restorative and regenerative by design.
Today, the emphasis is on recycling of packaging. That means it must be economically feasible to gather, reprocess and safely reuse packaging materials. This means that materials constantly flow in a ‘closed loop’ system, instead of being used once and then discarded. As a result, the value of materials, including plastics, is not lost by being thrown away.
However, we are seeing a major hitch in that scenario. American curbside recycling programs are struggling. According to new research from The Recycling Partnership, in July 2017, a ton of recyclables was worth over $90. In October 2019, it was worth $30. Material recycling facilities (MRFs) now estimate average processing costs are about $80 per ton.
However, the report emphasizes that this does not necessarily indicate the end of recycling. Many communities are finding ways to sustain curbside collection. Some communities are also adjusting which materials will be accepted, raising customer fees, and taking steps to address contamination.
Meanwhile, single-use plastics are also garnering attention at the federal level. In February, legislation was introduced that would phase out the use of these materials and make companies responsible “for covering the costs of cleaning up the waste from their products.”
At the same time, many producers and brand owners are making efforts to collect and capture this waste for reuse in their packaging. By increasing demand for recycled plastic, they hope to increase recycling rates and produce an increasingly attractive business case for re-processing services.
As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states on its website: “There is a world of opportunity to rethink and redesign the way we make stuff.” Nonetheless, it is going to take a much more coordinated effort between producers, users and governments to ensure success and make recycling of all packaging practical and economically feasible.
John Kalkowski, Editor-in-Chief