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Packaging producers have to act now!

While the focus of the plastic packaging sector continues to be strongly directed at sustainability, recycling rates have not kept pace with ambitions, according to a new report from Rabobank.

Companies and industry groups across Europe and the US have committed to environmental protection pledges; governments are presenting regulations focused on managing plastic and plastic waste. Still, a large amount of waste never reaches recycling plants, ending up in landfills or incineration plants for energy recovery.
More than 500 of the most influential organisations globally have committed to roughly the goals adopted from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s vision for a circular economy: “By 2025, 100% of packaging should be recyclable, compostable, or reusable.”
But 2025 is less than two years away. If these sustainability goals are to be met, investment and concrete actions are needed now, the report warns.
The report examines the situation in Europe and the United States, detailing the ongoing trends on both sides of the Atlantic. It looks at the end-of-life practices and legislation around the end of life in both regions, highlighting the need for packaging producers need to start investing and trialling now.
According to Jim Owen, Plastic Packaging Senior Analyst for Rabobank in North America, some options would be:

  • setting up well-funded R&D departments that can articulate all the trade-offs, specify material and equipment needs, and begin understanding the implications for shelf life;
  • establishing partnerships with recyclers and resin processors and investing in recycling (both advanced and mechanical) to ensure supply continuity; Educating consumers on packaging and, in the US, adhering to How2Recycle guidelines, in order to achieve higher recycling rates and greater access to recycled content;
  • discontinuing investment in outdated materials, working toward simplification with attention to end-of-life value;
  • being a part of extended producer responsibility (EPR) bill formation.

While recycling infrastructure and volumes have increased in Europe and North America in recent years, a large amount of recyclable waste never reaches recycling plants and ends up in landfills or incineration plants for energy recovery. “In the US, an average of 13.3% of plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2021, while in the EU, an average of 38% of plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2020,” said Regina Mestre, Plastic Packaging Analyst for Rabobank in Europe.

Rabobank; Unwrapped: Plastic Packaging Matters report

Rabobank; Unwrapped: Plastic Packaging Matters reportIncreasing the amount of waste that is recycled will require a number of changes, including improving collection infrastructure and promoting separate collection streams; designing for recycling, i.e. making sure packaging is easy to recycle following guidelines including but not limited to use of light colours and increasing monomaterial packaging; and designing for correct collection – amongst others through the harmonisation of labels between packaging and waste containers.
And viable options for end-of-life plastic packaging must be provided once it reaches consumers’ recycling bins.
In the US, the low rate of plastic recycling rates has been attributed to such factors as consumer behaviour, population growth in areas where recycling is not offered and low landfill disposal rates. And in Europe, the report writes, while mechanical recycling is an established industry, the high prices of recyclates when compared to their virgin counterparts has led to low recycled material content in packaging. Increasing the recycling rates and availability of recyclates is likely to help make recyclates more affordable for packaging producers.
The report takes a brief look at the potential of chemical recycling as a solution for hard-to-recycle plastics packaging. It notes that: “Unbiased life cycle assessments should be carried out to determine the best alternative for the treatment of plastic packaging waste, taking into account end-of-life treatment and the degradation of plastic caused by different treatments, as well as their impact on circularity.”
Higher and more affordable availability of recyclates alongside regulatory changes are likely to increase the use of recycled content in packaging.


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