A hand holding a circular earth

How Converters Can Support a Circular Economy in the Packaging Industry

Plastic's versatility is undeniable, but what if we thought about the material with the expectation it will be recycled or reused?

By Shell Polymers on Apr 02, 2021

A circular economy in packaging means using and recycling plastic via a closed-loop system, rather than producing plastic to be used once and discarded. To realize the vision of a circular economy, the thoughtful stewardship of valuable materials is required to keep molecules "in-play" with chemical recycling.

Today, we follow a largely linear economy where plastic is made and then disposed of or recycled.1 And, of the total amount of plastic produced, 40% is used in rigid and flexible packaging.2 Discarding plastic also has a negative economic effect as well, as plastic waste represents an $80-$120 billion loss to the global economy every year.3 There is hope though. As innovations take place today, converters and suppliers can support creation of a circular economy.

Support Innovation in the Packaging Industry

Currently, design is the main area converters can support brands to create a circular economy. According to the FPA, reusable and refillable packaging will play a much larger role by 20304 and have a large impact on the progression towards a circular economy.

In the short term, converters can modify flexible packaging design to increase recyclability. For example, as refillable packaging becomes more popular, converters can look for ways to shift packaging for soaps, detergents, and other liquids into more sustainable options. In fact, some stores offer stations where customers can refill their plastic packages, helping keep the plastic in the economy and not discarded.

Aronax Technologies Spain’s exploration of a small magnetic additive that will help plastics block gasses and can be identified and separated at the recycling stage.5 The packaging additive would create better air and moisture insulation properties that would make it suitable to protect sensitive products such as coffee and medical products. The small, plate-like particles of silicates and iron oxide will give plastics a better ability to block gases such as oxygen, and it can be identified and separated at the recycling stage.

Considered a breakthrough for hard-to-recycle plastics, Shell Chemicals is using pyrolysis today to ultimately recycle one million tons of plastic waste a year in its global chemicals plants by 2025.

Pyrolysis is another innovation that heats plastic waste without oxygen to turn longer chain polymers into shorter chain materials. Considered a breakthrough for hard-to-recycle plastics, Shell Chemicals is using pyrolysis today to ultimately recycle one million tons of plastic waste a year in its global chemicals plants by 2025.

Another hopeful project is the flexible plastics packaging recycling collection and sorting pilot project completed in the fall of 2020.6 The work done in Birdsboro, PA and sponsored by industry Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) led a Materials Recovery for the Future pilot project that demonstrated how flexible plastic packaging could be properly collected and sorted. The results of the pilot proved that added blowers and optical sorting systems could help the collection and recycling of flexible plastic packaging. These kinds of innovations must be supported and collaborated on by industry leaders in order to be effective.

Rethink Packaging Materials to Encourage Recyclability7

Materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), and expanded polystyrene (EPS) are considered uncommon plastic packaging materials. Their lack of viable after-use options means these items are not always collected during recycling. Even when collected, there is little after-use value for these materials. These plastics represent 85% of the uncommon plastic packaging materials so replacing them with known alternatives that are 100% recyclable, such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE), is key.

Even small concentrations of PVC (0.005% by weight) lead to significant quality reductions in chemically recycled and mechanically-recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET).8 Due to the difficulty of recycling these types of materials, a complete redesign of their use in packaging is often suggested by groups like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 

For example, starch brand Argo, now sells its cornstarch and baking powder products in 100% HDPE containers, making the container completely recyclable9 compared to the familiar tins that incorporate aluminum and cardboard. The original mixed material design meant those tins were harder to sort in recycling streams. Making small changes to container design, like the above, can be a huge step towards encouraging a circular economy.

Follow the Leaders

If you’re not sure where to start, look to prominent companies that are already investing in circular economies. Consumer packaged goods brand owners like Unilever10, Nestle11, and General Mills12 are already making commitments to drive change.

Some promises these industry leaders have made include a commitment to:

  • Reduce virgin plastic packaging by 50% by 2025
  • Collect and processing more plastic packing than they sell by 2025
  • Ensure that 100% of their packaging is designed to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable
  • Increase the use of post-consumer recycled plastic content in their packaging by at least 25%

When industry leaders invest and collaborate on a circular economy in packaging, real change is possible. In fact, the U.S. Plastics Pact, launched in August of 2020 by more than 60 public and private stakeholders, is also working to support a circular economy.

Learn more about the advantages of leveraging HDPE Film for Consumer packaging applications

Signatories of the group commit to large-scale changes that include recycling or composting 50% of their plastic packaging, ensuring that 30% of their packaging that is recycled or responsibly sourced. Plus, they plan to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and develop a list of problematic packaging to be eliminated by 2025.13

Brand owners aren’t the only ones instituting changes. Resin suppliers are also taking strides towards a circular economy as companies like Shell Polymers continue to promote pyrolysis as an innovative way to recycle plastics. Shell Polymers also has several polymer experts who hold leadership positions in associations that ideate new ways to tackle plastic recycling. So as converters begin to create a circular economy in packaging, they can look to industry leaders and experts in the field.

Explore more how a more sustainable future takes innovation and drive

While some of these steps might be easier for large companies, they can still be a model for converters of all sizes. With short-term goals like redesigning packaging and moving to reusable packaging, converters play a critical role in supporting a circular economy. And with large companies committing to change, there is already a system in place to follow. The sustainability and economic benefits provide a clear reason to support a circular economy when it comes to polymer packaging. Let’s get started.

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https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/explore/plastics-and-the-circular-economy

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/05/plastics-facts-infographics-ocean-pollution/

https://www.unilever.com/sustainable-living/reducing-environmental-impact/waste-and-packaging/rethinking-plastic-packaging/

https://www.flexpack.org/publication/RG93bmxvYWQ6NDU4

https://www.greenbiz.com/article/5-innovations-could-end-plastic-waste

https://www.flexpack.org/publication/RG93bmxvYWQ6NDU4

https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/New-Plastics-Economy_Catalysing-Action_13-1-17.pdf

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873020/

https://www.argostarch.com/about_us.html

10 https://www.unilever.com/sustainable-living/reducing-environmental-impact/waste-and-packaging/rethinking-plastic-packaging/

11 https://www.nestle.com/media/pressreleases/allpressreleases/nestle-sustainable-packaging-transformation-journey

12 https://www.generalmills.com/en/Responsibility/Sustainability/packaging-statement

13 https://www.flexpack.org/publication/RG93bmxvYWQ6NDU4