The transition to post-consumer recycled plastic
Despite its many valuable uses, single-use plastics have gained notoriety as the major contributor of pollution in our oceans, environments, and ecosystems. Since the 1950s, global plastic production has exceeded 8.3 billion tons, with 4.98 billion tons ending up in landfills or litter in the natural environment. As a result, circular economy models are encouraging corporates to increase the use of recycled plastic content in their products.
In this piece we examine the differences between post-consumer recycled plastic and virgin plastic. We then look at various brands who have taken active measures to incorporate more recycled content in its products.
Differences between post-consumer recycled plastic and virgin plastic
Virgin plastic is a resin produced using natural gas or crude oil and does not contain any recycled materials. Whereas post-consumer recycled plastic, as the name implies, involves the recycling of plastic packaging at its end-of-life as a consumer product. This can include water and cooldrink bottles, plastic bags, milk containers etc.)
Whilst virgin plastics can withstand high temperatures and pressure thanks to its sturdier molecular structure, it’s increasing reliance on fossil fuels and subsequent impact on the environment is forcing manufacturers to relook at the design of its products (Read: Redesigning for The Environment).
Where post-consumer recycled plastics falls a tad short in quality in comparison to virgin plastics, it has a host of cost and environmental benefits, namely: reduction in use of fossil fuels and associated greenhouse gas emissions, decrease in production costs, and reduction of plastic waste at landfill sites.
Big Brands’ Bold Commitments to Post-Consumer Recycled Plastic
Global beverage leader, The Coca-Cola Company has recently published its World Without Waste goal, where it aims “to collect a bottle or can for every one we sell by 2030.” This initiative rests on 3 core pillars:
If successful, this monumental goal could possible end the brand’s infamous association with plastic pollution. However, there are concerns around the feasibility of this project and the logistics in retrieving the post-consumer bottles for recycling.
Logitech, one of the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, proudly announced that 65% of all mice and keyboard units contain post-consumer recycled plastic, exceeding its commitment of 50% in 2020. This fantastic achievement has had a domino effect in reducing the company’s carbon impact and leading the group closer towards a circular model. From its Design for Sustainability initiatives, the company has:
- Eliminated approximately 8,000 tons of virgin plastic from Logitech products in 2021.
- This is equivalent to 19,000 tons of CO2 saved across the mice and keyboard product lifecycle, which further equates to an average passenger vehicle driving 1,740 times around the Earth.
Its next steps are to obtain product certifications for all products with recycled plastics content, which will be disclosed to all stakeholders.
Owned by multinational food giant, PepsiCo, Walkers, a British snack food manufacturer, has committed to trialling crisp packets made from post-consumer recycled plastic bags, biscuit wrappers and other plastic packaging in 2022.
On a group level, PepsiCo has pledged to use 100% recycled or renewable content in all crisp and other snack packets by 2030, resulting in estimated 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions per ton of packaging material switched to recycled material.
What’s the verdict: Post-consumer recycled plastic or virgin plastic?
The greatest inhibitor with switching to post-consumer recycled plastic is quality. Manufacturers are concerned with producing sub-par quality products to consumers. There are also concerns with the contaminants that are typically found in recycling plastic.
However, due to increasing demand and pressure to manufacturer more sustainably, there has been significant improvements in the recycling of post-consumer plastic.
Oceanworks noted how quality and contamination in recycling have been addressed:
- Advancements in sorting and recycling continue to be made, resulting in increasingly higher-quality, purer recycled plastic.
- Purer, single-grade recycling feedstock is also available, eliminating worries of subpar materials polluting the feedstock.
- Recyclers sourcing plastic from higher-quality providers at consistent volumes results in a better, more efficient supply chain and creates more predictable and consistent output quality and volume.
Whilst virgin plastic will continue to have a place in manufacturing supply chains, there is certainly an increasing movement towards post-consumer recycled plastics. At the very least, a blend of recycled and virgin plastics would reduce the demand to create virgin plastic resins from fossil fuels. A 70:30 recycled plastic to virgin material ratio can create a blended plastic with properties that are comparable to 100% virgin material.
Closing the loop between post-consumption and recycling
The greatest challenge that companies like Coca-Cola will face is the gap between post-consumer use and collection of the plastic material for recycling. This can be managed through an effective waste management system and public recycling drop-off centres across strategic areas, such as shopping malls, recreational facilities and educational institutions. This needs to be further supported by a public awareness campaign, encouraging consumers to responsibly dispose of used bottles and other packaging at designated drop-off points.
The Don’t Waste Group has spent over 25 years innovating its waste management systems to ensure transparency, reliability and accountability across our client’s supply chains. We’ve developed bespoke models for public buy-back and drop-off centres, helping industries to close the quantity gap between collecting, sorting and recycling.