Reuse, recycle, revolution

7 May 2020

With packaging in a period of rapid transformation, manufacturers are finding increasingly innovative ways of supporting a circular economy. Tracee Auld, chief sustainability officer at Graham Packaging, explains why, how and who.

In recent years, plastic packaging – particularly single-use – has received a lot of unfavourable media attention, resulting in both legislative and societal backlash. Much of the conversation has been centred around the amount of plastic in the ocean, the growing number of cities banning or taxing singleuse plastics, and what steps companies are taking to reduce their environmental impact.

Following China’s import restrictions on US recycling in 2018 – which included most plastics – waste management companies across the country told municipalities there was no longer a market for certain grades of plastic due to the negative financial impact. This left communities with two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling or throw it away. While many manufacturers are stepping up to meet these new and growing consumer demands, there are still significant barriers at every level of the recycling process that make it difficult for consumers to recycle, which therefore make it difficult for manufacturers to create sustainable packaging.

Some of the most commonly cited barriers to recycling include: inconsistent collection and recycling efforts along the entire value chain; misinformation about effective methods for preventing pollution; lack of consumer understanding of what is recyclable and how to recycle it; and little or no access to recycling and waste collection services.

When recycling programmes were initiated, they were designed so communities unaccustomed to recycling would be able to do it. These less restrictive practices make it difficult for recycling centres to properly sort such a variety of waste materials.

While some plastic material cannot be recycled, resins such as PET and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are two of the most recyclable materials on the market. Unfortunately, the recycling rate for plastic containers in the US remains at less than 10%. Now more than ever, manufacturers must work tirelessly to reduce the amount of waste that makes its way to landfills or oceans.

Plastics possibilities

When used responsibly, plastic packaging can lead to reduced pollution and lower energy usage than other forms of packaging. In the face of today’s challenges, the best outcome for plastics is through the reuse of this valuable, finite resource. Therefore, the first and most important contribution to the circular economy is to collect and reuse bottles that exist today through vigorous recycling efforts.

Companies are embracing the circular economy – which aims to minimise waste while maximising resources – by exploring new technologies to reduce or eliminate barriers to recyclability, chemicallyrecycled plastics and bio-based plastics.

Transitioning to a circular economy requires adjustments aimed at reducing the negative impacts of the linear economy. It also represents a systemic shift that builds long-term resilience and generates business and economic opportunities. To be part of the solution, manufacturers must exist and grow in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable way.

Energy use is a key driver of greenhouse gas emissions, and other environmental and health impacts. PET uses less energy across its life cycle, which reduces a variety of environmental impacts. Less PET is also required to fulfil the same function, compared with the weight and volume of other materials such as glass.

One of the best practices that companies can embrace to support sustainable packaging is to design for recyclability. This includes using shapes, process technology and design technology to promote recycling that minimises the environmental impact of packaging. Below are a few examples of how manufacturers are revolutionising recycling through grassroots efforts and product innovation.

Packaging companies embracing this mission are developing new technologies that allow different types of bottles to pass through the recycling stream. In the past, black plastic packaging materials were a challenge to recycle because they couldn’t be properly identified and sorted by optical sensors.

Traditional carbon black bottles were virtually undetectable by near-infrared (NIR) sorting in recycling streams. This posed a challenge for companies that wanted to maintain brand identity while making their packaging recyclable. This led to the development of a new technology that allows products to achieve the look of a carbon black bottle, and to remain detectable during NIR sorting. The innovative process achieves the opacity of standard carbon black with the detection capabilities of noncarbon black.

Readability is the new black

In an effort to achieve the highest levels of sustainability, Graham Packaging developed a tri-layer bottle, which allows for a reduction in the amount of masterbatch needed to achieve the correct opacity. The tri-layer package allows the manufacturer to fully encapsulate the recycled content to achieve a more sustainable solution.

The unique design offers the same opaque appearance as carbon black containers but can be recycled due to a three-layer structure, including noncarbon black with black opacity. This contributes to fewer bottles in landfills, where coloured bottles often end up due to incorrect material fraction. Companies can now keep their packaging ‘on brand’, and simultaneously contribute to a sustainable environment.

For years, manufacturers have challenged themselves to make lighter packaging without compromising performance. Lightweighting is an innovative process that results in a reduction in the overall weight of a package, while still having the integrity to stand up to filling, labelling, packaging and shelf life.

A life-cycle analysis conducted by Aspire Sustainability compared the environmental impact of glass jars versus PET plastic jars. A sample of 1,000 jars was studied throughout its life cycle, with variabilities that included: jars, caps and packaging materials; transportation to filling locations; hot filling and pasteurisation; transportation to grocery stores; and the disposal of unrecycled jars in landfills.

The results of the study found that PET jars have lower life-cycle impacts than glass jars in the following categories: global warming potential (38% less), energy use (16% less), acidification (55% less), particulate matter (93% less) and smog (55% less). Raw material and manufacturing impacts per jar are lower for PET than glass jars – consuming 14% less energy and releasing 54% fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

There are contributing factors that allow PET to have a lower footprint. First, PET jars release fewer emissions over their life cycle due to more efficient manufacturing techniques and less material used. The reduction in material usage and lighter weight of PET jars also requires less energy to make, fill, package, transport and recycle or landfill than glass.


Percentage at which raw material and manufacturing impacts per jar are lower for PET than glass jars.

Aspire Sustainability

In addition, due to their lighter weights, 40% more PET jars can be loaded on to each truck shipment, requiring fewer deliveries and less fuel during transport to recycling or end-of-life disposal. Since they are virtually shatterproof, the jars also need less packaging during transport than glass containers, further reducing the weight on each truck.

The general project of keeping the oceans clean starts with preventing as much waste – including plastic – from entering the water cycle at all. Having the ability to recycle those plastics is even better. Rescuing ocean-bound plastics (OBP) involves taking materials that are at risk of becoming ocean pollution, and turning them into reusable plastic resins.

Every pound of rescued OBP is pollution transformed into a recyclable resource. OBP can be refined to quality levels, with up to 100% inclusion in nearly any application where HDPE is the preferred material. This versatile resin can be used for both injection and blow-moulding products, making it suitable for a wide range of packaging applications.

For decades, there has been a strong interest in post-consumer recycling (PCR) in an effort to keep plastics and other waste out of landfills. However, many consumers fail to realise the positive impact post-industrial recycling (PIR) can have on the environment. PIR – sometimes referred to as post-industrial regrind – involves any closed-loop, recaptured scrap resin that is a direct result of the manufacturing process.

There are several ways PIR occurs in a plastic packaging plant. First, there are the rejected parts that come from the production line’s quality control units during leak tests or other inspections. Bottles that are non-compliant or defective are ground and reintroduced into the manufacturing loop. The use of industrial materials might minimise the ability to increase post-consumer material when a package has a limited amount of recycled plastic in its design.

For the consumer, PIR needs to be viewed in combination with PCR for an overall packaging benefit to the consumer. The greater the total recycled content, the greater the benefit for the environment and the circular economy. The PCR collection process must grow to maximise the PCR content, thus achieving the best overall recycled package. If PCR content generates an industrial waste stream, manufacturers should then look at the best overall practice for material composition.

This leads to a need for balance between PIR and PCR. Manufacturers must make adjustments in mould design and material content to maximise both materials. Both post-industrial and post-consumer recycling are valuable, and play an important role in promoting sustainable practices. Using recycled content has many significant environmental advantages, such as reducing energy consumption and the extraction of finite resources. Further, in certain cases, using recycled content can be advantageous from a cost perspective.

Waste is ugly

There are several reasons why a bottle may be thrown away after a single use. The most common is due to scuffing on the exterior of the bottle, which lowers its shelf appeal. Since most bottles are rejected for cosmetic reasons, companies are exploring ways to cut down on the ‘used’ appearance of a bottle by using texturing that takes on the appearance of bubbles, and helps to eliminate scratches and scuffs on areas where they commonly occur. When tested, these textured bottles showed 75% less scuffing than non-textured bottles, and are designed to be reused up to 25 times.

There are bigger steps to be taken on the journey towards achieving a circular economy. To move forward in a positive direction, leading manufacturers are making formal commitments, like joining the US Department of Energy’s Better Plants Programme or partnering with The Recycling Partnership, which aims to transform recycling in states, cities and communities while working tirelessly to reduce plastic waste.

Communities, companies and government entities must work together to overcome barriers for recycling, and to push for solutions that support the best possible environmental outcomes.

The use of recyclable and reusable plastic packaging helps create a circular economy where valuable resources are conserved rather than wasted. By working together to preserve these finite resources, we can continue to enjoy the many benefits of plastic packaging, including safer products, more convenience, lower prices, reduced energy use and less product loss.

Tracee Auld, chief sustainability officer at Graham Packaging: US-based Graham Packaging has for 45 years offered cutting-edge plastic solutions for companies large and small.
Post-industrial recycling can have just as much impact on reducing the production of waste as post-consumer recycling.
Future action on plastic recycling will require a combination of computer-augmented systems and traditional manual work.

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