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The gorilla in the middle of the recycling room

On the ever-present topic of sustainability, there's been a gorilla in the proverbial room that up until recently wasn’t even acknowledged. 

Major leading brands, retailers and packaging suppliers have gone on record saying that they are committed to using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025.

We know that sustainability is a very complex issue and that different parts of the world are more advanced with their recycling efforts than others. We also know that specific plastic materials and related attributes/value play a large role in this equation. 

For example, in the United States, only 28% of post-consumer PET bottles are recycled.  In European/Scandinavian countries, the percentage is much higher—and Norway is the champ at 97%!

In these “best practice” countries, collection bins are clearly marked “PET,” so consumers easily know where to dispose of bottles. Some countries even have a tax on garbage bags, so consumers are incentivized to use fewer of them, so that the overall amount of trash is minimized.

So, back to our gorilla. 

How exactly are U.S. brands with lofty recycling goals going to achieve their 100% reusable/recyclable/compostable number under the current recycling paradigm? 

Hint: under the present recycling scenario, I have a bigger chance of drawing winning Powerball numbers.

Simply put, recycling in the U.S. is both confusing and lacks consistency across the country.  Even we, as plastics industry professionals, hesitate in own homes regarding which bin to put a specific type of plastic. Many of our communities do not make the process easy to understand.

We are also residents of a very large country, which means we are not under the same physical restraints or societal norms that are prevalent in many European cities. Our cars are larger, as are our homes, refrigerators and, therefore, the amount of waste we generate.

We are beginning to understand that the answer to reaching many of the sustainability goals has to involve everyone in the value chain. To accomplish our objectives, we are going to need a change in both infrastructure and in culture.

We have to make it easier and more psychologically rewarding for consumers to do the right thing. 

Recently, the Coca Cola Foundation announced $5.4 million in grants to environmental organizations. The largest beneficiary is The Recycling Partnership (Falls Church, VA), which is launching a three-year $4 million program in Atlanta to improve recycling, and dramatically increase amount of quality recyclable items that are collected.

The goal for the city is to decrease recycling contamination by more than 25% (which is a huge issue for PET bottles in the U.S.) and increase recyclable material collection by 20%.

If more businesses and municipalities partnered together to improve the infrastructure then fewer bottles end up in the landfill or become part of dirty PET bales, and more of this valuable resource can be reprocessed for downstream use.

If we work together, we can begin to alter consumer perception about plastic, and also collectively benefit from valuable raw material resources being reclaimed so that they can become part of next generation products.

Author: Thierry Fabozzi, president of PTI is responsible for the company’s global operations. Fabozzi has a 30-year track record of significant packaging technology and business development achievements. Before joining PTI, he held positions at Nestlé, Milacron and Tetra Pak.

About PTI

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Publication date: 02/04/2019

Plastics Today

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2020-07-14