The role of recycled resin in packaging isn’t a straightforward, linear one. In this blog, David Wilson, Managing Director of Vanden Recycling UK, discusses the role of recycled resin in packaging, including the challenges of using recycled content and where it all started.

Recycled resin is increasingly in demand globally – but it’s not a simple relationship of increased demand correlating to increased supply. Instead, the landscape is complicated by low recovery rates of post-consumer plastic scrap, durability and suitability of different polymer grades used in packaging – and their subsequent suitability for recycling, global legislation and challenges at the level of individual manufacturers, from the functional performance of packaging to its impact on branding. 

Yet, recycled resin already plays a pivotal role in producing a significant amount of plastic packaging – and that’s only going to increase in the coming years. So, what can be done about the challenges of using recycled content? And where did it all start? 

Why do we use plastic for packaging?

It starts with the unavoidable benefits of plastic packaging and why brands, manufacturers and consumers have all come to rely on the properties of plastic to package products, maintain freshness, prevent contamination, deliver information and much more. 

Simply put, plastics are inexpensive, lightweight and durable – making them the ideal candidates for packaging. Different polymer types have different functional properties that extend the benefits and uses of plastics in packaging – whether that’s increasing the shelf life of food products, allowing products to travel further, minimising weight to reduce transport emissions and costs, enabling brand differentiation or preventing contamination.  

Here are some examples: HDPE is commonly used in packaging, offering many of the above benefits. It is, therefore, suitable for household and industrial chemicals and its good barrier properties make it good for products with a short shelf life. LDPE, as another example, is great for packaging where heat sealing is necessary. In contrast, PET resin is often used for packaging liquids thanks to its good gas and moisture barrier properties.  

Plastics have become integral to the way we manufacture, transport and purchase such a wide range of goods. But, despite the benefits of plastics in packaging, we all know there is a negative environmental impact to using plastic packaging. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018, the US alone saw 27 million tonnes of plastic reach landfill and 5.6 million tonnes of plastic were combusted.  

Furthermore, the negative impact on the environment is even more to do with the material that isn’t captured for energy or into landfill, but that becomes uncontrolled litter either in the US or wherever material has been sent for re-processing. This includes the uncontrolled burning of reject material in overseas recycling markets. 

Diverting scrap plastic from such endpoints and incorporating this recycled material in packaging is a clear way to reduce this environmental impact. 

Why hasn’t recycled plastic always been used?

So, if recovering plastic scrap and then using it in recycled content reduces the environmental impact of plastic packaging, why haven’t we always used recycled plastics in packaging? 

There are several reasons why. To start with, it’s worth noting that aesthetic sensibilities are changing. This isn’t just a question of the reprocessing industry meeting demands of brands and supermarkets. It’s brands and supermarkets changing their view.  

A decade ago (perhaps even 3 to 4 years ago), if you were to ask a supermarket what tray colours were required to sell fresh meat, black and clear would have been the only options they would have contemplated. However, if you were to look on the supermarket shelves now, you see a green/grey tray colour in widescale use – i.e. mixed colour due to recycled content. 

As a by-product of this change, a recent innovation in recycling black plastics is under threat. Black plastic has been recognised as being a particular challenge when it comes to plastic recycling. You can read all about the challenges of recycling black plastic in our blog analysing a RECOUP report. Still, in short, black plastics have largely gone unrecycled due to the NIR systems used to sort material at recycling facilities, being unable to detect black polymers – and thus unable to sort it into a pure stream needed for recycling. 

IV signatures/additives to help sort black plastics were launched a few years ago. But if the solution to make everything black isn’t required and a mixed colour solution is seen as OK, the opportunities for IV signatures diminishes. 

Whether used for branding, aesthetic or functional purposes, virgin plastic packaging is often contaminated by using other materials such as inks, adhesives, other polymers, metals and paper. The result is that, historically, it’s not possible, or very difficult, to recycle the material and then use that recycled material to create the recycled resins that will be used in recycled plastic packaging.  

Recycled resin has also traditionally not always offered the aesthetic that brands strive for and consumers expect. Although progress is being made here with extensive filtering and impurity elimination, recycled resin is – by its nature – of lower quality than virgin plastic, so there’s not always as much control over the final look of the packaging. There may be impurities resulting in specks or discoloured spots.  

This is, of course, set to change.  

However, recovery rates of scrap plastic generally pose a challenge to the continuous supply of recycled resins. Without the source plastic scrap, the recycled resins used to produce packaging with recycled content can’t be produced. The broad range of polymers used in multiple plastic products and packaging can make segregation difficult.  

On top of all this, for many manufacturers, retailers and FMCG companies, the focus has been elsewhere in packaging design rather than sustainability and the incorporation of recycled resins into packaging. Usability of packaging, reducing the weight of packaging and lowering the general costs of packaging have all been much more of a focus – and sustainability has taken a back seat. But that’s been changing in the last decade.  

The demand for recycled resin is on the increase

We recently wrote about the legislation coming into force to reduce single-use plastics, and it’s the same motivations for this global movement that are also now increasing the demands for recycled resin. There’s a push to reduce reliance on single-use plastics, and the recycling of such plastics is pivotal in helping to achieve that. Consumer pressure on manufacturers and governments to reduce the amount of plastic scrap going to landfill and incineration has led to many taking a new focus on plastic packaging and its lifespan beyond its primary use.  

As a result, countries like the UK are introducing (in April 2022) taxes on plastic packaging that does not meet a minimum threshold of at least 30% recycled content. It’s legislation like this that is really driving up demand for recycled resin as packaging manufacturers focus on avoiding additional taxes and the need to comply with consumer pressure.  

According to McKinsey, in 2020, almost all of the top 100 FMCG companies (in terms of revenue) have made bold declarations and commitments to drive sustainability over the coming years – and an emphasis on full recyclability and a significantly higher degree of recycled content are the most widely embraced initiatives. 

And all of this is changing the market for recycled resin. Demand is increasing and pushing up prices, whilst virgin resin prices fluctuate too. But there are naturally challenges with using recycled plastic – and our Technical Director, Beril Yeşilırmak, discussed many of these in her recent blog.  

How can you be sure the recycled resin is fit for the application?

When using recycled resin in packaging, the converter’s technical demands must be met. Without the best-fitting recycled resins for the application, the quality of the final packaging will be impacted – whether that’s the aesthetics of the packaging or its functional performance.  

Consultation, technical advisory services, factory and feedstock audits, trial management, quality control, ongoing technical assessments and TDS validation are all critical in ensuring packaging manufacturers get the right recycled resin product for their application. 

But it’s not just the quality of recycled resin that is vital for manufacturers to factor in – it’s the reliability of quality supply too. With demand increasing, and the recovery rates of recyclable plastic scrap still relatively low – particularly in post-consumer plastic scrap (estimated in 2017 amongst EU countries to be around 14% for plastic packaging) – many manufacturers will be looking to ensure the supply of recycled resin they will come to rely on for their packaging is secure.  

And to achieve that security, global multipoint supply is critical. On our recycled resins page, you can read more about how we have exactly that at Vanden, as a global collector, supplier and recycler of plastic scrap. 

How can we secure the recovery of plastic packaging once it becomes household waste?

As mentioned, the recovery rates of plastic packaging, once it has served its original purpose, is still low – and it needs to improve if recycled resins are going to be consistently used in packaging manufacturing. So, what can be done about it? 

Recovery rates vary widely and do not depend so much on the polymer type but on the form and supply chain. Another challenge is the cost of improving plastics recovery infrastructure. Some argue that retailers and brands should contribute towards these costs to improve the recovery of scrap and the subsequent volume of post-consumer recycled resin.  

For example, while PET is successfully recovered, the material tends to be in the form that makes it into people’s homes, i.e. larger bottles. Smaller bottles, so-called on the go bottles, are not well captured – this is where the deposit return scheme (DRS) could be very impactful.  

It is a similar story for HDPE. For example, there is a very high recovery rate for 2-litre milk bottles but less so for on the go drinks packaged in HDPE.  

The real bugbear with plastics, though, are flexibles – especially laminated materials. The use of laminated materials will be discouraged through extended producer responsibility, which will address the difficulty of recycling an item, not just the amount of the material placed onto the market.  

There is a growing visible collection of flexible plastic, with the lead being taken by supermarkets themselves using a bring-back scheme. The true impact of this remains to be seen.   

Back onto DRS, councils are wary of this. Widespread DRS that capture home-based material could disrupt their value chain, but with an all costs approach being put forward by EPR, it’s fair to say they may not care too much. 

These deposit schemes are being successfully run in the Netherlands, Norway and Germany, where used plastic bottles are returned to deposit banks located at supermarkets, for example, are the way forwards. By offering the consumer a financial incentive to drop off used plastic scrap (around 15-cent per deposit), it’s believed that this sort of infrastructure will improve the recovery of plastics that can be used in like-for-like recycling – and that’s the ideal if the plastic waste stream for reprocessing could consist of a narrow range of polymer grades, that in turn reduces the difficulty of replacing virgin resin directly when manufacturing plastic packaging using recycled resins.  

As mentioned above,  these schemes come with their downfalls too. The placement of deposit banks is a challenge: will consumers divert and save their plastic waste to then drop it off at a deposit bank? Or, because the kind of bottles suited to this sort of recycling are often designed to be convenient and on the go, will people really divert their bottles from a conveniently placed general waste bin they pass by during their day for the sake of a small deposit? Much of this depends on consumer behaviour and many argue that the impact will still be small – and the problems with the recovery of post-consumer plastic scrap are more pressing in other areas.  

PET is already one of the most successfully recovered post-consumer polymers and would be the common type of polymer recycled in such deposits. Instead, many argue that focus should be on polymers and packaging that continuously fails to be recycled – whether that’s mixed polymer packaging, contaminated packaging or waste that is difficult to identify and segregate.  

Packaging innovation continues to be pushed by many manufacturers, but there’s still progress to be made to reduce the challenges of post-consumer plastic recovery. FMCGs and retailers also face challenging decisions around improving the recyclability of packaging, but equally still balancing whether that packaging has a higher overall carbon footprint, particularly if the shelf-life of products is impacted and food waste increased. The technical and economic feasibility of different plastic types and applications will also need to be considered – because the cost will remain a decision-making factor for brands and cost increases will need to be passed on to the consumer in many scenarios.  

All in all, the road to increasing the recovery of post-consumer plastic scrap is a complicated one – and one that’s naturally intrinsically linked to the supply of recycled resin that so many manufacturers are looking to rely upon as demand for recycled content in their packaging increases. Innovation in recovery schemes, recycling equipment, packaging design and more will continue to be vital. However, in correlation, companies – like ourselves at Vanden – are still providing the continuous feedstock of recycled resins brands need thanks to global networks and technical capability.  

Click here to find out more about recycled resin supply.

Managing Director of Vanden Recycling, David Wilson, wrote this post. To read more blogs like this one, visit the Vanden Knowledge Centre.

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