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Demand Increasing for PCR Plastics: How Recycled PE supports Sustainable Packaging Solutions

By Alan Schrob, Director of Mechanical Recycling, NOVA Chemicals

Sustainability is on everyone's mind these days. From reducing plastic pollution to combating climate change, consumer awareness of the environmental impacts of current methods of production and consumption is increasing, influencing people's priorities and purchasing behavior. And who do consumers believe should be shaping the future of sustainability? According to survey data from Nielsens Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) sustainability report, almost half of consumers hold brands most responsible for sustainable progress.1

That means that brand owners are turning to producers and converters to help them make their products and operations more sustainable. With the upcoming UN global plastics treaty and multiple national plastic pacts all focused on building a circular economy, plastic packaging is a major focus of many sustainability efforts.

Consumer pressure and government regulations regarding extended producer responsibility (EPR) and post-consumer recycled (PCR) content mandates are contributing to increasing market demand for recycled plastics. McKinsey estimates that the demand for PCR plastic will triple by 2030 to about 90 million tons.2

As one of the most common and versatile plastics in packaging, polyethylene (PE) represents a significant opportunity for building recycling streams that support a reliable supply of PCR material. Recent innovations in PE resin technology have brought recyclability to a variety of flexible packaging formats with mono-material designs and high-performance qualities.

As brands consider adopting more sustainable packaging, converters can differentiate themselves with expertise in the PCR content arena. Working with experienced PE suppliers and recyclers allows converters to introduce recycled polyethylene (rPE) in their own operations, understand the properties and benefits of rPE, and give their customers a seamless transition to recycled and recyclable packaging.

Understanding rPE

As PCR content usage grows, brand owners still have concerns about how recycled materials will affect their products. In their Packaging Compass study, PMMI and Ameripen found that a third of the nearly 400 CPG companies surveyed were concerned about product protection and product quality when considering sustainable packaging materials.3

To address these types of questions, converters and purchasers should ask potential rPE suppliers about the source of the recycled material, what types of foreign materials could be present, such as labels or other polymers and the processes they use to manufacture rPE. The rPE resins behave differently than virgin resins, and those differences in feedstock composition and processing can lead to changes in look, feel and performance.

Converters should also understand how PE will affect their operations. Different rPE resins can create odors, die lip build up, changes in pressure in processing equipment and other impacts. Experienced suppliers will have the technical knowledge and applications background to manage challenges, ensure operational success and find the right mix of resins to meet converters' needs.

The planning and operational adjustments with the rPE manufacturer that are needed to incorporate recycled materials are worth the time and effort. Recycled resins help companies reach decarbonization goals by reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. In a lifecycle impact study conducted by the Association of Plastic Recyclers, recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE) was found to reduce emissions and energy use from production and transportation by over 70 percent.4

Meeting Performance Requirements

The latest rPE resins are available in a variety of capabilities, offering design flexibility and meeting the demand for PCR content in a variety of applications. Agricultural films, stretch films and HDPE milk jugs are some of the sources being used to create high quality PCR feedstock for use in multiple flexible packaging applications such as heavy-duty sacks and e-commerce mailers, as well as rigid applications like blow-molded bottles and more.

Recycled resins can even be used in demanding applications such as food packaging.

Food-contact resins are highly scrutinized by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with stringent sourcing and processing requirements. Recyclers and resin producers have collaborated to produce mechanically recycled rPE to help brands incorporate recycled content into food packaging products.

Working Together to Design for Recyclability

Considering all of the players involved in the packaging lifecycle - from producers to brands to retailers to recyclers - it is clear that the plastic circular economy cannot be built by any individual organization. To address plastic waste at its source, resin producers, converters and recyclers are working together to design plastic packaging for recyclability from the start while strengthening the supply of PCR materials.

McKinsey's research on product sustainability supports a collaborative approach; they suggest that the most effective way to improve sustainability is to involve the wider value chain. While product development typically accounts for less than 5 percent of a product's total cost, it affects up to 80 percent of the product's resource footprint.5

By adopting a collaborative innovation mindset, brands that engage with suppliers and converters during the research and development phase of using recycled materials can make significant progress toward their environmental targets. The diverse capabilities of rPE are making recyclable designs accessible for more types of packaging than ever before.

The focus on recycling will continue to grow in the years to come. As you begin to include rPE in your packaging or expand your rPE applications, find suppliers who make it a priority to collaborate - who aren't taking a back seat to industry changes, but who are leading the charge to develop sustainable, scalable solutions. The sharing of knowledge and expertise is essential as we work to protect our planet and change the way plastics are produced, recycled and reused.

1 https://nielseniq.com/global/en/insights/report/2023/the-cpg-sustainability-report/

2 https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/reimagine-reuse-recycle-how-to-reach-sustainable-packaging-targets-in-retail

3 https://www.pmmi.org/report/2023-packaging-compass

4 https://plasticsrecycling.org/images/library/2018-APR-LCI-report.pdf

5 https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/operations/our-insights/product-sustainability-back-to-the-drawing-board

About the Author

Alan Schrob's role with NOVA Chemicals is to create and build on existing external relationships to obtain a long-term, secure, high-performing and controllable supply of recycled polyethylene that helps NOVA Chemicals' customers, brand owners and retailers meet sustainability commitments.

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