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New Circular Packaging Spotlight for a Few Familiar Formats

August 23, 2022

Today's guest blog is courtesy of NERC Advisory Member The Recycling Partnership. The original post can be read here.

Solutions for recyclable packaging are not one-size-fits-all. From aluminum beverage cans to glass bottles, each specific packaging material and format has its own unique recycling benefits and challenges, like design features or sorting technology. But addressing complex problems in siloes won’t further progress. We need all stakeholders across the value chain, for all materials, to engage in achieving a fully functioning U.S. residential recycling system and circular economy. The Recycling Partnership is furthering these efforts through the new Circular Packaging Spotlight and forthcoming Circular Packaging Assessment tool to further assist companies and communities with system complexities and individualized integrated solutions.  

Building on The Partnership’s interactive Circular Packaging Assessment (Assessment), the “Circular Packaging Spotlight” is a preliminary recyclability assessment for seven familiar packaging formats, identifying areas for improvement as well as strengths. The Partnership took the following packaging formats through the Assessment to pinpoint focus areas for action: Aluminum Beverage Cans, Glass Bottles, Pizza Boxes, Polycoated Fiber Containers, Polypropylene Tubs, Monomaterial PE Bags, and PET Clamshells. Further information on each package format and focus areas for action can be found here. 

As an example, one focus area is the capture journey of aluminum beverage cans. The design of these cans is generally recyclable as long as: there are minimum non-aluminum elements, community recycling access is common, and end markets are strong. Even so, Can Manufacturers Institute’s recent study of materials recovery facilities (MRFs) revealed that increased efforts must be made to recapture the economic value lost on missorted cans. Another Spotlight package format is PET clamshells, with focus areas being: packaging fate, access and adoption, and recyclability prevalence. Polyethylene terephthalate or plastic #1 is a commonly recognized package, but there is an opportunity to improve recyclability of PET clamshells through strengthened end markets and increased acceptance in community programs. Companies can help address these complexities through engagement with Partnership-led efforts like theAluminum Beverage Can Capture Grant Program and PET Recycling Coalition.  

Catalyzing a Better Recycling System through Action 

The Assessment has five core building blocks that characterize overall packaging recyclability: Design for Recyclability, Access & Adoption, Capture Journey, Packaging Fate, and Recyclability Prevalence. Each building block has required and recommended criteria that must be true for a format to be considered recyclable. Solutions range from engaging with industry resources, such as reviewing published design guides, to joining or forming a material-specific coalition to work with others across the value chain on specific challenges. 

To simplify evaluation and experimentation of packaging design options, The Partnership will launch a fully digital version of the Assessment later this year to help companies determine the residential recyclability of a package. The Assessment will offer easy-to-use design guides from industry organizations, such as Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), Aluminum Association, and others, and provide users with data-derived results for industry standards like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides’ 60% recycling access threshold. All suggested solutions will be linked to direct resources and contact information, enabling companies to take clear and immediate action in the areas that will drive the largest impacts. The new Circular Packaging Spotlight lays out a baseline for action in advance of the digital Assessment launch.  

Since every material requires work to achieve a circular economy, when a package does not pass through the Assessment or meet a building block’s criteria, it represents an opportunity for system-wide circular growth. Our Paying it Forward report shows that $17 billion is needed to level up the U.S. recycling system for all materials. This investment over five years would lead to a return of $30 billion in economic benefits over 10 years through the value of recyclables, savings from landfill diversion, wages, and more. By utilizing our Circular Packaging Assessment and getting involved with material coalitions, stakeholders can gain the necessary clarity to take action and apply a system-wide approach to unique material challenges. 

Disclaimer: Guest blogs represent the opinion of the writers and may not reflect the policy or position of the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.

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