We've all heard the catch phrase "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," or the Three R's, related to sustainability. The saying has been around since the 70's and has steadily gained popularity over the decades. Today, not only are consumers continuing to go green, brands and retailers are also beginning to take it very seriously. Retailers like Walmart and Aldi, along with brands like Coca-Cola, Evian, and Mars have committed to converting to reusable or renewable packaging products by 2025.
But what does that mean exactly? How does one define renewable packaging? Is packaging considered reusable if its end-of-life story benefits something other than a recycling stream? It seems there are more questions than answers when it comes to sustainable packaging, especially where plastics are concerned.
The Reality of plastic Recycling
Whether you’re a Baby Boomer, Gen X-er, Millennial, or Gen Z, most of us try to “do the right thing” by separating our at-home waste into the appropriate bins. We expect that this will lead to proper recycling. While this is the case for most paper, aluminum, and glass products, it isn’t always the case when it comes to plastics.
Even when separated into the correct bin for what we expect will be recycled, studies have shown that only around 9 percent of all plastics actually flow successfully through the recycling process. In fact, National Geographic published an article in 2017 on plastic waste that stated…
“Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced [ever], 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only 9 percent has been recycled. The vast majority — 79 percent — is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter.”
Other studies have also suggested that 10-15 percent of plastics are combusted for energy, leaving around 75 percent headed for landfills. Regardless of the study source, the facts are clear — despite our best efforts, most plastic packaging is not getting recycled.
Packaging Industry Response
The packaging industry has received the message loud and clear from brands and retailers — get ready for 2025!
The flexible packaging industry is responding to these new market demands in an effort to curb what’s happening today. Recyclable, compostable, biodegradable, and bio-based films are all being introduced into the market to meet demand for more eco-friendly packaging options.
The labeling industry is also rising to meet the sustainability challenge with Post-Consumer Recycled content liners, recycle-friendly pressure-sensitive adhesives, and thin-film liners. The R&D cost and effort to get these products to market comes with a hefty price tag, but the packaging industry is betting that today’s trends will become tomorrow’s reality.
lagging Recycling Industry
While the flexible packaging and labeling industries have gone to great expense to meet the demands of 2025 sustainability commitments, their investment must be matched by the recycling industry to modernize their infrastructure. Today, the vast majority of recycling centers are simply unable to execute the recycling of recyclable films. This vital piece of the puzzle is not as clearly defined as one would think. Most municipalities operate under state and local regulations, making it difficult and slow to create change.
a Fourth "R" - reality?
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. It makes us feel good about actually participating in something positive for our environment. But if the 4th “R” is Reality, the story isn’t as positive today. If the infrastructure isn’t there to properly handle recyclable materials, where will they end up? Once again, most likely the landfill.
Fortunately, Outlook Group can help you wade through today's sustainable packaging Reality to meet your consumers' demands and your organization's objectives. In our next blog post we'll review and explain the alphabet soup (EPR, APR, FSC, SFI, PCR, etc.) of the sustainability world.
Tag and Label Manufacturer’s Institute (TLMI) - 2019 Calvin Frost Environmental Leadership Award
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) - 2019 Wisconsin Business Friend of the Environment.