The Growing Trend of Recycling Packaging Materials

The Growing Trend of Recycling Packaging Materials

By Heidi Reidel

It is becoming increasingly imperative for companies to incorporate environmentally conscious practices into their business model. A consumer’s choice of product may come down to it’s perceived environmental impact and that begins with packaging. However, there can be unforeseen difficulties when it comes to recycling packaging materials. Packaging, especially in food products, is necessary for safety purposes, but to ignore the call for environmental sustainability means to lose business.

Challenges of Recycling Packaging Materials

Between 25 and 33% of all domestic waste is packaging. Packaged convenience food is gaining popularity so that number is likely to increase. One of the biggest difficulties facing the recycling of packaging materials is contamination. Paper or plastic products that would otherwise be recyclable become contaminated by food (i.e. pizza boxes) and are no longer recyclable. Many consumers see that something comes in recyclable packaging and don’t consider contamination. In such cases, it is more effective to use biodegradable materials.

Many are under the impression that if a material is recyclable, any product of the same material is recyclable. This is untrue. While plastic is recyclable, black plastic isn’t accepted into most recycling facilities. Black plastic doesn’t reflect light which is how optical scanners identify types of plastic. Glass is one of the most highly recyclable materials, but color or gradient glass can’t be recycled. Once glass has been colored it is contaminated and can’t be mixed with clear glass.

Multilayered Packaging Materials

Multilayered packaging materials are another problem in the world of recycling, Products like chip bags and juice cartons use layers of different materials, like foil and plastic, which can’t be separated and thus can’t be recycled. Unfortunately, this is potentially the biggest problem with recycling packaging materials and there is no easy solution. For some products there is no effective alternative. Until technology develops that can separate these materials, the only solution may be consumer education.

Recycling Stats

According to a study in 2015, 87 million tons of the 251 million tons of trash generated were recycled or composted, which is a 34.5% overall recycling rate. Americans recycled 32% of post-consumer plastic bottles and 34% of glass containers. When it comes to glass containers, however, those numbers can have a lot of variation. Depending on a state’s container deposit laws, that number can go from 63% to 24%. Recycling glass is particularly economic, as 80% of recycled glass can be remelted and repurposed. The most recycled materials in America are aluminum and metal cans, with a recycling rate of 67% for aluminum cans and 71% for steel cans.

Since 2005, there has been a 74% increase in the amount of post-consumer film that has been recovered for recycling. The recycling structure for flexible packaging materials is still in its infancy, but a group of stakeholders is studying recovery solutions to help divert films, pouches, and bags from the landfills. According to a press release announcement, “This research effort represents a first step in what will be a series of projects aimed at creating a mainstream recovery solution for flexible packaging.” Though recycling faces a myriad of challenges, it appears the trend is gaining momentum and the practice is being perfected.

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