Plastics and the Circular Economy – Be Part of the Solution

By Wesley Porter, Business Development Director and Sustainability Lead, Berry Global

Plastic has played a major role in supporting and shaping our modern world. Its many benefits, including strength, durability, and flexibility, mean it meets the needs of busy lifestyles, delivering, among other things, consumer convenience, high levels of product protection and on-shelf appeal.

Just as important for today’s environmentally conscious world, plastic can contribute to companies’ sustainability goals. Its light weight helps to reduce carbon emissions throughout the supply chain; by protecting and preserving products, it extends shelf-life to minimize food waste; and continuing technical advances mean the latest plastics deliver the same performance while being even lighter, thus contributing to material reduction targets.

Nevertheless, despite all this, plastic has a perception challenge associated with its waste. There is therefore an urgent need for all stakeholders involved in a plastic pack, including plastics producers, brand owners and equipment manufacturers, to take collective responsibility for it from its materials and production to end of life, and to collaborate on both packaging and systems solutions.

There are signs that U.S. market demand is shifting. As consumers become more environmentally aware and this influences their purchasing decisions, brand owners and retailers are increasingly demanding solutions that address the issues surrounding end of life. Legislators too are taking action; we have seen bans on single use plastic bags in some states; Hawaii has banned food vendors from providing plasticware; and although California’s proposed bill to tackle single use plastic did not pass into law, it illustrates how legislation will increasingly be a factor in tackling plastic waste.

If we look at what has happened in Europe, we can see parallels with our own situation. Individual governments there have introduced laws specifically targeted at reducing plastic waste and increasing levels of reuse and recycling. In the UK, for example, from April next year, the Plastic Packaging Tax will apply to any plastic packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled content.

At the same time, the European supply chain has collaborated to introduce its own commitments. The Plastics Pact, initiated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is a network of local and regional (cross-border) initiatives that brings together key stakeholders to implement solutions towards a circular economy for plastic; the Circular Plastics Alliance aims to boost the EU market for recycled plastics to 10 million tons by 2025.

A major advantage of such initiatives is that they have enabled standards and protocols to be introduced that give structure and consistency to any industry response. For the flexible packaging sector, the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) initiative is a collaboration of over 160 European companies, associations and organizations representing the entire value chain, which aims to make all flexible packaging in Europe circular by 2025.

The plastic industry has also worked to further enhance the material’s recyclability. Flexible packaging has been redesigned into monolithic PE structures that are much easier to recycle. More advanced systems and technology for recovery and sorting are improving the quality of the recycled material and making it suitable for more, often higher value applications. This is vital work as many European brands are pushing for higher recycled content than legislation demands. As manufacturers we need to respond to this while ensuring any solution remains fit for purpose.

Plastic is far too valuable a material to waste and is already part of the circular economy. Recycled flexible plastic has traditionally been used to produce trash bags, agricultural film, and outdoor furniture and fencing. The industry is now transforming its use to replace virgin content in higher value items such as shrink film, retail and industrial packaging.

The further development of plastics recycling represents a major opportunity but, as in Europe, it is essential that all parts of the supply chain work together. We need to identify ways to make packaging even more recyclable; we must support the recycling industry to help expand its collection and reprocessing of flexible packaging; we have to work with machinery suppliers to ensure packaging equipment can convert this material efficiently and effectively; and we need to support brand owners in identifying more uses for the material.

There must also be a concerted effort in consumer education, to help them understand the benefits of recycling plastics and enable them to make informed decisions about what to do with a package at its end of life. EPRs or collaborations that support investments in infrastructure to encourage this change in behavior are critical.

This is starting to happen. The Recycling Partnership has introduced its Film and Flexibles Task Force to define, pilot and scale recycling solutions for packaging that includes plastic film, bags and pouches. The US Plastic Pact was launched in 2020.

Leading retailers are introducing front of store collection for used film. Major ecommerce firms are introducing recycling systems for their used protective packaging. The How2Recycle label provides consistent and clear recycling guidance for consumers.

Such initiatives and the partnerships that are being created will help to stimulate demand, which in turn will bring commercial benefits, particularly in terms of a lower price point.

Plastic’s role in society is changing, but it is a change for good. As we move from a linear to a circular economy, plastic is an important part of achieving this. However, to be truly successful, it will not be just technology that drives higher levels of recycled content in plastics packaging. It will be achieved through coordinated action across the whole supply chain, focusing on improved consistency and traceability of raw material, improved recyclability of films, the introduction of common standards, and the capability of packaging technology to handle and process these materials.

If stakeholders collaborate across the value chain to seize the initiative in concert with any legislative action, we will be able to better influence the debate and ensure that plastics remains as innovative to our world as it has been for the past 70 years.

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