Recycling is in the spotlight. Following China’s import restrictions on American recycling in 2018—which included most plastics—waste management companies across the country began telling municipalities there was no longer a market for certain grades of plastic due to the negative financial impact. This left communities with two choices—to pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling or to throw it away.

Recycling challenges

Where recycling does occur, there is a lack of understanding of what can be recycled and how to recycle. The reason for this is that when recycling programs were initiated decades ago, they were designed with few restrictions to ultimately lower the barrier of entry for communities who weren’t accustomed to recycling. These less restrictive practices have continued, making it difficult for recycling centers to properly sort and manage an increasing variety of waste materials.

While some plastic material cannot be recycled, resins such as PET and HDPE are two of the most recyclable materials on the market. Unfortunately, the recycling rate for plastic containers in the U.S. 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.

Creating a circular economy

The circular economy is an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. 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.

Transitioning to a circular economy not only 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 while delivering environmental and societal benefits. To be part of the solution, manufacturers must exist and grow in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable way.

Designing for recyclability

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

Packaging companies who embrace this mission are developing new technologies that allow different types of bottles to pass through the recycling stream. For example, in the past, black plastic packaging materials were a challenge to recycle since they couldn’t be properly identified and sorted by optical sensors. New designs allow containers to maintain their opaque appearance while being easily detected during the recycling process.

Rescuing ocean-bound plastics

Keeping oceans clean starts with preventing waste—including plastic—from entering them. 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 a reusable plastic resin.

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 molding products, making it suitable for a wide range of packaging applications.

Post-industrial recycling

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 realize 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 noncompliant or defective are ground and reintroduced into the manufacturing loop. The use of industrial materials might minimize the ability to increase post-consumer material when a package has a limited amount of recycled plastic in its design.

Recyclable pigmented packaging

In the past, black plastic packaging materials were a challenge to recycle since they couldn’t be properly identified and sorted by optical sensors. Manufacturers are developing unique ways to combat this by creating bottles that offer the benefit of opacity found in a traditional, carbon-based bottle while allowing the bottle to be detected in recycling streams.

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 colored bottles often end up due to the wrong material fraction. Companies can now keep their packaging “on brand” while contributing to a sustainable environment.

Encouraging reuse with texture

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 nontextured bottles, and they are designed to be reused up to 25 times.

Future of sustainable packaging

There are bigger steps to be taken on the journey toward achieving a circular economy. To move forward in a positive direction, leading manufacturers are making formal commitments, like signing the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, joining the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Plants Program, and partnering with The Recycling Partnership, which aims to transform recycling in states, cities and communities while working tirelessly to keep plastic out of oceans and landfills.

Communities, companies and government entities must work together to overcome barriers for recycling and push for solutions that support the best possible environmental outcomes. When used responsibly, plastic packaging can lead to reduced pollution and lower energy usage than other forms of packaging available today.