Despite all the attention on creating a circular economy, the reality is that recycling rates for plastics average less than 10% in the US and roughly 15% in Europe. Regional legislation, possible fees and fines and negative public sentiment are driving action in the packaging industry, among other sectors, to address a more circular approach to plastic use.
Sealed Air presented on the topic “Design for Circularity” and what that means for flexible packaging during a mid-October webinar. We caught up with one of the presenters, Myra Foster, global director, sustainability strategy & advocacy, to provide additional insights on several key points.
What’s the best way to move the needle to increase recycling rates?
Foster: Fundamentally, recycling requires collection, sortation, and reprocessing. To increase recycling rates requires increased access to collection, improvements in infrastructure to include innovations in collecting, sorting and reprocessing technologies to handle a wider portfolio of material substrates, and ongoing education for consumers and industry.
One of the most surprising slides from the webinar was this (above): “Today, fewer US Residents have access to recycling.” How did that happen and what can be done?
Foster: That data was taken from the 2020-2021 Centralized Study on Availability of Recycling, a study commissioned by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) and conducted by RRS. It’s quite possible the data reflects changes due to COVID that impacted labor (collection and processing) and the change in mix of housing types across the country. For example, single-family homes had greater access to recycling programs than multifamily housing.
What’s Sealed Air’s position on Extended Producer Responsibility?
Foster: EPR fees, if sustainable (meet current and future needs and are agile enough to accommodate change); managed fairly (eco-modulation, parity in funding, applies to multiple substrates); and with guidance and input from across the value chain (addresses key objectives of stakeholders — demonstrable material recovery); can be a meaningful way of funding the necessary infrastructure to address product end of life. Many industries including paint, batteries, and mattresses have successfully incorporated EPR fees for quite some time. EPR fees for packaging have been used in Europe and Canada for at least two decades.
In addition to the How@Recycle label, what else can be done to clarify recycling for consumers?
Foster: Opportunity to leverage digital technology to not only increase consumer understanding of how to recycle properly but also to improve collection, sortation, and reprocessing.
Too many consumers don’t grasp how efficient flexible packaging is — even if not recycled — from a data-based view such as a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)…how can that disconnect be corrected?
Foster: Work with brand owners, trade associations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), regulators and government officials to articulate and educate consumers on the value of plastic packaging and the benefits it provides as one of the most resource efficient substrates for mitigating food waste and preventing product damage which contributes to minimizing the environmental impacts of product loss and waste.
In a nutshell, what's your take on mechanical vs. advanced recycling?
Foster: A number of reports have been written about the carbon footprint of various recycling technologies — data depends on the type of technology and the scope/boundaries of the data — refer to the newly released white paper from Closed Loop Partners. We believe there is a place for both mechanical and advanced recycling.
What has Sealed Air done to address circularity in flexible packaging?
Foster: Sealed Air’s 2025 Sustainability and Materials Pledge shows the company is committed to design or advance 100% of its packaging solutions to be recyclable or reusable by 2025, to eliminate waste by incorporating an average of 50% recycled or renewable content into our solutions, and to collaborate with partners worldwide to increase recycling and reuse rates. We do this by deploying breakthrough technologies in the areas of materials science, automation, and digital services to deliver solutions that drive growth and create value.
One example was the development of an ultra-thin barrier display film that was manufactured using plastic created from advanced recycling technology. Cryovac brand rBDF S10 barrier display film was made with 30% recycled content without compromising its abuse resistance and barrier protection. We will continue to invest in innovation with key partners to bring new solutions to market as we work to accelerate the circular economy.
Ed Note: In partnership with Tesco, Plastic Energy, SABIC, and Bradburys Cheese, Sealed Air pioneered a process for recycling soft, flexible plastic that can be used for safe, food-grade packaging. This closed-loop recycling happens when flexible packaging is collected from consumers and implemented into existing packaging designs for Bradburys Cheese. More information is found here.