Progress being made but still a long way to go in packaging recycling, says expert

By Joe Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Liz Shoch from GreenBlue
Liz Shoch from GreenBlue

Related tags Sustainable packaging coalition Packaging industry Packaging Packaging and labeling

The US packaging industry must improve material recovery and not “bury its head in the sand and pretend the problem will go away” according to an expert.

Liz Shoch, Closing the Loop Project lead of non-profit group, GreenBlue’s, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, has released seven reports focussing on closing the loop for packaging material recovery.

The latest report under the Closing the Loop project identified the model that is run by Belgium as one of the best, as it provides industry funding for the entire packaging recovery system.

Call to action

Shoch, also project manager for GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition, told packaging material recovery has become a top issue and warned that the situation could worsen if action is not taken.

First, packaging is one of the most visible ways consumers engage with a brand. If they feel that the packaging is “bad,” there is too much packaging, or the package can’t be recycled, consumers will become frustrated with that brand’s products.

“Second, the packaging industry is only slowly beginning to look at packaging materials as more than a single-use resource.

Finally, the packaging industry are challenged by numerous local and state laws and regulations targeting specific types of packaging (like expanded polystyrene or plastic bags) or requiring certain labels,” ​she said.

“So the challenge for industry is to take that leap and proactively work to improve the US material recovery system, not bury its head in the sand and pretend that the problem will go away​.” 

Shoch recently presented a webcast called “Sustainable Packaging: Will we ever close the loop​?” which was an extension of a presentation given at this year’s Sustainable Packaging Symposium.

When asked about current progress, Shoch said: “At the moment, we in the US do a decent (not great) job at recovering materials that, unfortunately, are decreasing in prevalence in the market.

“We don’t have any good end-of-life solution for most new materials, multi-material packages, and flexible packaging, which are all increasing in the marketplace​.”

The challenge remains to see used packaging material not as waste, but as a valuable resource and invest accordingly, she added.

Single use culture

There is a culture of single-use, throwaway packaging. On-the-go packaging is a real US phenomenon – in particular, we consume a lot of food packaging from quick service restaurants and have no good away-from-home disposal option when it comes time to discard, recycle, or compost it.

I think that people in the US packaging industry like the idea of closing the loop, but in spite of all the research and real-life examples from around the world, there is still a general unwillingness on the part of the packaging industry to engage in making it happen.”

She added that there is high demand for glass, paper, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high density polyethylene (HDPE), low density polyethylene (LDPE) and polypropylene (PP) but turning the use of recycled content into reality is where the US lags behind Europe.

Many countries in Europe have extremely high recycling rates as well as the technology to sort and reprocess hard-to-recycle materials. Therefore, they have a large supply of recycled scrap materials and can create more packaging using recycled content.

“In the US, recycling rates for most materials are too low to allow companies to meet their recycled content targets​.”

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