Circular economy and label material selection

Increased awareness about plastics pollution, particularly related to our oceans, has catalyzed a renaissance in the demand for a cradle to cradle, or closed-loop, packaging infrastructure. With systems as they currently stand, and products and packaging designed to be thrown away, pollution is inevitable.
Artist Benjamin Von Wong created art to depict the plastics pollution in our oceans

Post-consumer plastics must be successfully recoverable through a viable infrastructure and have a valuable end-use in order to move to a closed-loop Circular Economy. Also imperative is a steady supply of post-consumer content with a consistent quality grade. 

Current global recycling rates for plastics are low, with 14 percent collected and ten percent effectively recycled, according to the World Economic Forum. In the US, the rate for PET is just over 29 percent in 2017 according to NAPCOR’s (National Association for PET Container Resources) most recent data. These rates of collection need to improve, and such is the intention of SPC’s on-pack How2Reycle label, informing consumers on how best to dispose of their used single-use containers. Improved quality can be achieved by taking a holistic approach to packaging material selection, including the label construction, understanding what’s available on the market and using verified data to guide adoption at concept and design stages.

Proper end-to-end infrastructure with ample capacity, and positive material value, are the most cumbersome barriers to a closed-loop plastics economy. The first step in knocking down these barriers is an agreed, common set of standards and shared definitions across the value chain. 

Proper end-to-end infrastructure with ample capacity, and positive material value, are the most cumbersome barriers to a closed-loop plastics economy. The first step in knocking down these barriers is an agreed, common set of standards and shared definitions across the value chain. 

Harmonized definition of plastics recyclability 
Plastics Recycling Europe (PRE) and The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), two of the leading international organizations representing plastics recyclers, have developed a global definition governing the use of the term ‘recyclable’ as it relates to plastics packaging and products. PRE and APR consider a product recyclable when it meets the following four conditions:

1. The product must be made with a plastic that is collected for recycling, has market value and/or is supported by a legislatively mandated program

2. The product must be sorted and aggregated into defined streams for recycling processes 

3. The product can be processed and reclaimed/recycled with commercial recycling processes 

4. The recycled plastic becomes a raw material that is used in the production of new products

This definition of recyclability is intended to be the foundation for establishing a Global Plastics Protocol to provide a common target, to overcome existing fragmentation and to enable the creation of effective markets. The Global Plastics Protocol is part of the New Plastics Economy initiative which has grown to include 250 signatories to its Global Commitment across government, NGO and value chain stakeholders. The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment aligns signatories to work towards a broad set of goals to reduce plastics pollution: eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging, and move from single-use to reuse packaging models; innovate to ensure 100 percent of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025; circulate the plastic produced by significantly increasing the amount of plastics reused or recycled and made into new packaging or products.

Ton Emans, president of PRE, explains: ‘We need the appropriate audiences to understand what is necessary to label a product or package “recyclable”. We have seen many announcements regarding legislative measures on plastics products and pledges by the industry committing to making products recyclable. We welcome these commitments and encourage others to follow using this harmonized definition has a guide to reach our global objectives.’

APR endorses the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. Steve Alexander, president and CEO of APR, says: ‘We look forward to working with the committed companies to create a “new normal” for plastic packaging that embraces recyclability.’

‘New normal’ material selection
SPC’s How2Recycle labeling system directs packaging disposal behavior at a consumer level, and instructs packaging decision makers on choices that can be made in design and material selection to improve material recovery volume and end value. The SPC is aligned with the APR Design Guide when it comes to plastic recyclability, and where labels can help or hinder the recovery impact of the overall packaging. 

APR testing protocols and the APR Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability are tools brand owners can use to help make the best label material selection to improve the quality of post-consumer plastic materials. These resources are referenced in the article What How2Reycle means to our industry published in L&L issue 4. 

There are a handful of roll material labelstocks available with an adhesive chemistry that meets APR preferences to deliver the cleanest PET flake, efficiently removing label material from plastic particles in the caustic bath of the recycling process. Currently, the adhesives are available on a few key facestocks and liners, have limited performance parameters, are intended for clear PET only, and typically come at a higher cost – yet there is advancement.

Early adopters, including Unilever’s Love Beauty and Planet brand, are using second generation adhesives, while the third iteration is already in development. Roll material manufacturers continue their investment in research and development of recycle-compatible PS material constructions including facestocks that float and advanced adhesives because the market continues to ask for more. 

While adoption has been slow thus far, the How2Recycle label is turning into a key influence for CPGs and retailers updating their corporate recyclability goals. More and more SPC member companies are incorporating recyclability into performance reviews which is unlocking motivation inside of decision makers to advance and drive change.

In time, it’s anticipated that the labeling scheme will drive recyclability of a PS label adhesive to be just another principle when it comes to material characteristic required, such as performance, durability and application speeds. In this way the label industry is leading the way to drive a ‘new normal’ in providing a reliable, consistent stream of quality post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic into the market. 

Market value
For decades, China has been the largest importer of packaging waste, collecting more than 45 percent of the world’s post-consumer plastics. Other developing nations, too, have historically imported plastic waste from Europe and North America.

Starting on January 1, 2018, the flow of our international waste market was greatly impacted when China enacted its National Sword policy, effectually ceasing to accept millions of tons of used packaging – paper, plastics, metals and more. Other Asian countries have tried to accept the demand overflow, to no avail. Their infrastructures do not have the capacity to meet the volume.

This situation has created what some are considering to be a perfect storm for driving wider development of a Circular Economy for post-consumer plastics. Now that the EU and US have lost its largest importer, there’s an influx of PCR plastic in the regions and great need for improved collection and processing infrastructures. Is it possible to hit restart on the existing systems so that products and components are designed to be taken apart and regenerated positively? 

The Circular Economy concept is nothing new. Braungart and McDonough published Cradle to cradle (C2C) in 2002, and Life Cycle Analysis as a tool has matured greatly across all realms of manufacturing and product development as a means to shift to a more waste-free, closed-loop trade environment. However, this type of analysis does not include landfill or litter impact, so there’s more work to be done.

The idea of growth decoupled from resource constraints sounds promising, but maybe a little too optimistic in application. Would a Circular Economy be able to soften or even offset the slew of raw material price increases our industry has experienced in 2018? Either way, while there’s progress, there’s still plenty of groundwork involved before it’s a viable business solution. 

According to research conducted by the World Economic Forum, if improvements were made both to packaging design and to the systems for managing plastic packaging after use, 50 percent of plastic packaging could be profitably recycled. To lead improvement in profitable plastics recycling, the value chain must drive increased demand for post-consumer recycled content material, and APR is working on this. As this happens, the value stream can continue to count on the development of new label materials and continued collaboration towards this common cradle to cradle goal. 

Danielle Jerschefske

  • Sustainability columnist