Transitioning to the Plastics Circular Economy

A Steady Supply of Recycled Materials Hinges on A Robust Recycling Infrastructure

Designing packaging with circularity in mind is crucial to meet the growing demand for sustainable materials. Image courtesy of Nova Chemicals.

By: Greg DeKunder, Vice President, NOVA Circular Solutions, NOVA Chemicals

Packaging often represents a consumer’s first interaction with a brand. It is a powerful medium that communicates a product’s purpose as well as the producer’s practices and values. A commitment to environmental stewardship, represented by easily recycled packaging and materials made from recycled content, has become increasingly important to consumers in recent years. Demand for sustainable packaging is growing, with studies showing more people are considering the recyclability of a product’s plastic packaging when making purchase decisions. These consumer preferences, coupled with corporate sustainability goals and expanding Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, will continue to drive the need for a robust recycling infrastructure and a steady supply of post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials.

To meet demand and ensure a consistent supply of recycled plastics, designing with circularity in mind is crucial. The industry continues to develop innovative material solutions that can deliver the high-performance quality that consumers have come to expect from plastic packaging while easing the transition for converters and producers by assisting with packaging designs and capitalizing on existing recycling streams. Recapturing plastic packaging, recycling and reprocessing the components, and incorporating PCR material into new products requires collaboration between plastic producers, converters, and brand owners as we work toward building a truly circular economy.

Designing for recyclability

One way to establish a consistent supply of PCR materials is to simplify the recycling stream. Mechanical recycling facilities can be found all over the United States, but they sometimes struggle with sorting and cleaning different types of plastics. Monomaterial packaging designs facilitate easier recycling by making more types of packaging recyclable. While rigid plastic recycling is relatively well established for bottles and other containers, flexible packaging is often multi-material structures that cannot be recycled. Producers like NOVA Chemicals are working to discover new applications for existing materials such as all-polyethylene sealant resins and BOPE-HD (biaxially oriented polyethylene high-density) resins that create monomaterial, fully recyclable packaging.

The main concerns for monomaterial packaging are performance and processability. Different materials have been used to block light, act as vapor barriers, and provide airtight seals. Innovations in polyethylene (PE) technology have led to more flexibility in these designs, as the wide range of PE densities can be adapted to achieve excellent results in a multitude of applications. For example, all-PE sealant resins and plastomers are built to enable monomaterial PE structures and they work on high-speed packaging equipment offering durable, consistent sealant properties. BOPE-HD, the first high-density PE designed to run in the tenter frame process, can replace mixed-material films containing bi-oriented polypropylene (BOPP) or PET (BOPET) for flexible packaging. Films made with BOPE-HD and can also be laminated to an all-PE sealant web, creating more opportunities for recyclable designs. By designing with recyclability in mind, plastics producers and brand owners can enable circular solutions across the value chain.

Building a truly circular economy involves recapturing plastic packaging, recycling and reprocessing the components, making it possible to incorporate more recycled material into new products. Image courtesy of Nova Chemicals.

Incorporating PCR materials

Increasing the recycling rate is only part of the circular economy equation. How can converters and brand owners incorporate more PCR plastic into their packaging? Many companies start by including 25% PCR material in their designs. This could take the form of one layer in a multilayer film, or it can be blended with virgin resin. Typically, it requires minimal or no changes to existing extrusion processes and the transportation of film through the conveying and packaging line process is not compromised. We’ve seen successful customer trials that demonstrated comparable product performance when incorporating these types of PCR blends.

As more states begin to expand PCR content requirements for plastics, following the models of California, New Jersey, and Washington, PCR containing packaging   will eventually be mandatory. As the industry adjusts to changing regulations, it is important for suppliers to have a strong relationship with their customers and work together to identify problems and manage necessary changes to continue to produce high quality packaging. Collaborating across the value chain has a significant impact on understanding how PCR structures are manufactured and used by consumers.  Innovation is needed to enhance PCR processes and operations, but the industry is dedicated to enhancing the opportunities for incorporation.

Incorporating post-consumer recycled (PCR) material into new products requires collaboration between plastic producers, converters, and brand owners. Image courtesy of Nova Chemicals.

Building the PCR supply chain

Even as PCR materials are used in more applications, recycling facilities are not currently producing enough recycled resins to meet projected demands. Mechanical recycling plants took root in the 1970s, but they are still limited in number due to a lack of funding and new investment. Some plastics producers have begun opening their own recycling facilities.

Partnerships also drive innovation and help align supply and demand. Plastics producers, working with packaging equipment manufacturers and suppliers, can refine machinery designs and processes to create recyclable packaging solutions and handle PCR material. Brückner Maschinenbau, the leader in production lines for biaxially stretched films, has developed BOPE/BOPP hybrid lines to encourage converter adoption and make monomaterial designs more attainable. Brand owners can leverage partnerships to develop new solutions for specific markets. Pregis, a flexible packaging manufacturer, is collaborating with producers to use recycled content in food-grade applications including pouches and lay-flat bags.

To achieve a truly circular economy for plastics, companies must continue to research and develop innovative products and materials that enable recycling and utilize recycled content. However, we know that additional investments are needed to improve recycling infrastructure, including collection opportunities and sorting technology, to produce high-quality recyclate for various types of plastic applications. The plastics industry is ready for change, but we can’t do it alone. Supportive legislation that bolsters collaboration between government, producers, brand owners, and consumers will help increase recycling rates and allow manufacturers to integrate PCR material into their operations without fears of an unreliable supply. With innovation, cooperation, and a circular approach to design, we can make meaningful steps towards a zero plastic waste future.

About the Author

Greg DeKunder is vice president of NOVA Circular Solutions, a business of NOVA Chemicals. He has more than 30 years of experience in sales, management and operation in the petrochemical, plastics and recycling industries. Learn more at www.novachem.com.

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