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Supply Chain

Plastic Packaging Circularity in the US: Problems and Solutions

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US federal regulations affecting plastics and packaging are gaining momentum.
Daunting challenges remain on the road to plastic packaging circularity in the US, but problems like infrastructure can be overcome through collaboration and consumer buy-in.

Momentum towards the development of a circular economy continues to build as a host of brand names’ sustainability targets for recycled content in packaging edge closer.

Daunting challenges remain, but they can be overcome through collaboration and buy-in from the public at large.

That was the message echoed by expert panelists during a June 16 webinar from Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS) Chemical Data titled “How is Plastics Recycling Shaping the US Circular Economy?”, a replay of which can be found here.

Key hurdles include recycling availability, infrastructure, lack of a national framework, and packaging specialization rather than standardization.

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For example, 40 million US residents do not have easy access to recycle used packaging, according to Paula Leardini, senior recycling analyst for ICIS.

About $17 billion in investment over the next five years is needed in the US for recycling infrastructure and education, said Sarah Dearman, vice president of circular ventures for The Recycling Partnership, a non-profit group.

More than 450 new recycling plants must be built in the next several years to meet US demand for post-consumer recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) as listed in numerous brand owners’ 2030 pledges — more than 6 million metric tons per year, Leardini said.

But, according to Dearman, it would take a just three elements to coalesce around the necessary solutions: a true embracement of circular packaging in the supply chain; serious investment in processing and gathering of materials; and a society educated and motivated to keep plastics out of landfills.

EPR and chemical recycling.

That’s a much smaller number than the 50 different recycling solutions emanating from the 50 US states at present, with various forms of bottle-deposit, minimum post-consumer recyclate (PCR) content and extended producer responsibility (EPR) proposals enacted or discussed. And they span the geography, with California being the first state to mandate minimum recycled content in beverage containers and Maine’s legislature just this two weeks ago sending to the governor’s desk for a signature what would become the first EPR for plastic packaging in the US if enacted.

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Other states have focused their attention on the development of chemical recycling, which offers the promises of being able to transform unsorted plastics into a chemical feedstock that can be remade into plastic as good as virgin.

But, industrial scale for chemical recycling remains at least five years out and likely up to 10, Leardini said, making it a complementary process to mechanical recycling when it comes to short- and mid-term sustainability plans.

Federal legislation to provide the framework for a singular recycling solution would be helpful, Dearman said, although the fragmented nature of the current recycling marketplace provides challenges there. A majority of recycling infrastructure is in the Midwest and East Coast, while the West Coast has just scattered facilities at present. The reason? Because the West Coast used to ship a great deal of its recyclable packaging to China. The East Coast and Midwest did not have that option, and now neither does the West Coast because China stopped US waste plastic a few years back.

Another challenge is the specialization of packaging and brand owners’ desire for it to properly reflect their brands.

Plastic converters have gotten really good at tuning packaging to the exact specifications each brand owner wants — colors, layers, performance, etc. — but that in turn makes that packaging harder to process back into recyclate, said Jon Stephens, president of Natura PCR.

While some brand owners still push for the difficult-to-impossible ask of having recycled material look and perform just as virgin plastic does, others are starting to embrace recycled materials’ looks and simplicity as a brand-builder in itself, said Allison Lin, vice president for procurement and sustainability at plastics manufacturer Westfall Technik.

That’s just one step along the road to circularity, with many more to come.

Jeremy Pafford, Head of North America for Market Development, drives ICIS’s business development strategy for the US, Mexico and Canada and represents ICIS to chemical and polymer markets to showcase ICIS expertise. His role draws upon experience in leading engagement efforts by the Americas team over the last several years.

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