So Many Pledges, but not Enough Resources; The Issue with Using Recycled Products 

So Many Pledges, but not Enough Resources; The Issue with Using Recycled Products 

Due to the increasing awareness of waste issues—and with it, demand for environmentally friendly alternatives, a lot of companies have made a public promise to use more post-consumer recycled content (PCR) in their packaging or products.  

For instance, Nestlé has pledged to reach 30% PCR in packaging by 2025, while L’Oréal pledging 50%.  

To push this further, laws have been made to urge companies to incorporate more PCR such as Assembly Bill 793 in California. 

Despite the good intentions and efforts, new problem comes from this: currently there’s not enough recycled plastic for companies keep their promises or meet government mandates. And if the world doesn’t shift to more recycling from now, it’s not gonna be enough in the future as well. 

According to TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky , compared to PCR, virgin plastic in packaging increased by 2.5% between 2020 and 2021. 

Material scarcity for those who have pledged 

Ever since we discovered plastics and their benefits, we’ve been dependent to them, designing products and packaging from virgin materials. As we know, plastics are low-cost, versatile, and widely available. These advantages have been well-established into our minds that up to this day, many prefer virgin plastics to the recycled ones. 

Since recycled plastic use is relatively new, the technology (along with people’s mindset) hasn’t really caught up to the modern, spiking demands. It’s not easy to find recycled materials with the same characteristics as virgin plastics that the companies are trying to replace. 

Features such as melt flow, color, and grade (as in food grade, etc.) are difficult to copy. If the companies can’t find ones with the same quality, they’ll have to modify their current products’ manufacturing processes. However, changing the processes can make the finished products less attractive due to price increase or different look, or performance. 

When businesses are trying to change—or in some cases, compelled, and they want to use recycled materials, it’ll be a tough challenge for them; especially if they’ve started to implement new systems that produce their new, recycled packaging.  

Up to this day, the only PCR that seems to allow companies to avoid changing their processes is made from beverage containers (polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, beverage bottles and high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, milk jugs). 

Many t-shirts or shampoo bottles made from rPET (recycled PET) so far aren’t made from pulped down tees or shampoo bottles, but from soda bottles instead. Basically, this turns food grade, clear plastics into non-food grade items. Once the plastic becomes products like t-shirts, it’s unlikely to be recycled again. 



Even less recycled materials? 

In Italy, the national association of companies that recycle plastics announced the suspension of 40% of recycling activities.  

Furthermore, Szaky stated that Plastics Recyclers Europe has hinted that plastic recycling companies could be driven out of business. Energy represents up to 70% of operational costs, and in the current political climate, governments favor energy reserves on heating and other critical sectors more. 

The thing is, companies which have made public commitments rely on recyclers to provide materials for their packaging. If the cost of recycling goes up, it’ll become economically infeasible. 

Moreover, governments simply want to push mandates, creating even more demand for PCR which is already so hard to obtain. Szaky argues that governments should provide fiscal support of recycling infrastructure and technology, and pressure for systems to be closed loop. 

Steps that might help 

According to Szaky, companies should design products based on materials that we can find in the waste stream, not just municipally sourced beverage containers. Closed loop design is good for companies’ sustainability and the waste issue because we can turn the plastics back into itself at the end of its lifespan. 

Szaky gives two examples for this design: shampoo bottles and GPPS pen. 

Closed loop shampoo bottles made from HDPE can start from making packaging with HDPE characteristics: opaque, grayish in color, thicker-walled. With a closed-loop bottle design, one can get materials from recycling facilities. 

Recycling centers usually choose “good” colored HDPE like milk jugs, and put the darker ones for something else, possibly more low-grade. Using closed-loop bottle design, companies can show that the “bad” HDPE can also be lucrative to the recyclers. 

It’s going to be a win-win: companies have the PCR materials, and there will be more demand for more diverse types of material beyond clear PET and HDPE, preventing “less-desirable” packaging materials from ending up in an open-loop system. 

As for the GPPS pen, Szaky suggests that the companies need to set up their own supply chain through a take-back program. So, once the closed-loop design and system are set, companies can source the materials from their own program and recycle the plastics. 



Not closed loop 

The TerraCycle founder also gives some ideas when it comes to designing products using recycled materials sourced from waste stream. So, while the process of getting the materials is similar, it’s not going to be bottles-become-bottles or something similar to that; it’s going to be bottles-become-tubes or something to that extent. 

When companies work with recycling centers, they should find an input (one they don’t currently sort for) that would fit the qualities of the current packaging designs like a dark cosmetic packaging. Pay the recycling centers to begin collecting and recycling this material. 

As for self-sourcing, it’s possible to opt for “storied materials.” It means that the companies can try to get materials with a narrative and can be traced to point of origin. For example, collecting waste from trash found from polluted rivers or mangroves. 

Now, storied materials don’t seem economical at face value. However, when consumers know that the products are made from such materials, it can give the companies a marketing value—something that traditional PCR may not give. 

If there were two items from two different brands that we see on the shelf; one made from usual recycled plastic and the other from recycled plastic found on—let’s say—the top of Mount Everest, eco-conscious consumers will more likely choose the latter. 

Per Szaky, TerraCycle has worked with brand partner P&G to create shampoo bottles from ocean plastic. The response was so strong that P&G expanded this framework to its Herbal Essences line and to homecare with Fairy and Joy dish soap. 

Not solving the problem altogether, but helping 

Since the world isn’t going to have a swift change to recycling any time soon, Szaky’s ideas are simply suggestions to help with the issue, not a guide to completely solve the problem. 

Besides, recycling and using recycled materials alone will only make a small difference in the waste crisis. What should be done instead is to not depend on single-use or disposable plastics and design products with reusability in mind. 



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