By Todd Waddle, director, sustainability, M. Holland
Consumer preference increasingly favors sustainable products and is driving worldwide regulatory action. In 2022, McKinsey analyzed sustainable regulatory development across 30 countries. It found that an overwhelming majority – 29 of those 30 – have started to “discuss and implement” sustainable packaging regulations. According to the study, 83% of worldwide legal measures related to sustainable packaging focus on plastics, with 147 total measures identified last year. But sustainability is not limited to the packaging space. With growing producer responsibility and consumer sentiment, plastic manufacturers face increasing pressure to incorporate sustainability into their businesses.
Many manufacturers have established aggressive goals to increase their use of recycled materials by 2025, placing recycled materials, such as post-consumer recycled (PCR) and post-industrial recycled (PIR) content, in high demand. That demand will increase dramatically as more OEMs and brand owners use and test recycled content across different markets, verticals and polymer types. Naturally, increased demand has bred innovation. What does the newest generation of recycled plastic mean for manufacturing? Read on to learn more.
Recycled Content Defined
Within the plastics industry, there are two main types of recycled material:
PCR is generated after a recyclable product reaches the end of its use. Mechanically recycled PCR resins are developed by reprocessing existing material sourced from municipal or closed-loop recycling programs. The recycled products then are sorted by polymer type before being shredded, washed, melted and pelletized to be made into new products.
PIR is the industrial equivalent. Manufacturers that embrace circular economy principles can generate recycled material by collecting and reusing plastic scrap from the original manufacturing process in the same or another application with no extra sourcing required.
Benefits of Recycled Content
Wider availability and use of recycled materials continue to empower sustainable development within the plastics industry. New applications for recycled products are discovered almost daily, especially as developments in the recycling process have enabled the creation of low-opacity PCR resins. Today, carrier resins made with PCR content are used for concentrates and masterbatch products, allowing brands to create products containing 100% recycled materials.
Manufacturing with recycled resins for injection molding, extrusion or blow-molded processes decreases reliance on virgin plastics and reduces overall plastic waste. Switching to PCR content or finding ways to incorporate PIR content supports sustainable manufacturing goals, improves environmental impact, and enhances brand and product reputation.
But What About Color?
Color and appearance are critical to successful product marketing. Until recently, this has hindered the use of PCR resins in colored applications. Recycled content traditionally is colored black or dark grey due to the pigments and additives in comingled post-consumer feedstocks. For many, coloring over residual PCR shades wasn’t worth the extra pigments required to produce a recognizable branded product. Even if manufacturers did manage to find uses for darker-colored PCR materials, virgin resins still were needed to apply color to the plastics. Manufacturers using PCR content were unable to claim applications were made with 100% PCR content until now.
Innovations in recycling resulted in carrier resins that more closely mimic virgin alternatives, especially when it comes to coloring capabilities. These newest resins are cleaner and easier for masterbatch producers to use when manufacturing color and additive products. They also boast greater consistency characteristics compared to earlier versions.
With low-opacity PCR carrier resins available, brand owners are using up to 100% recycled materials to create colored packaging for brand-sensitive products, including deodorant and shampoo bottles, food packaging, automotive applications, and fibers for carpet, clothing and upholstery. These new applications allow companies to incorporate recycled plastics more effectively into their sustainability strategies without compromising the color.
Incorporating PCR Materials
If these new developments have convinced manufacturers to consider PCR, incorporating recycled materials into the manufacturing process requires a multi-step process.
Identify: Make sure the product is a candidate for PCR. Some industry segments have regulatory or performance requirements that could impede the use of recycled material. Consumer opinion also should be considered, though it usually favors recycled packaging and products. Consumer market studies can be used to determine if customers prefer a recycled product.
Test: Once confirmed that PCR content is a viable option for the application, product testing and line trials will need to be carried out to prove it can be molded correctly. This research and development (R&D) stage can take anywhere from six to 24 months, depending on the amount of testing and research needed.
Budget: R&D costs can add up quickly with all the physical and analytical testing that must be completed. Line trials at a molder, if necessary, will add to the cost of creating a PCR product. One simple line trial can cost as little as $3,000, though long-term testing and the creation of new molds will add expenses. Be sure to get a good estimate if working with a slim budget, as costs at the R&D stage quickly can rise to $250,000 and up, depending on the testing required.
Common Implementation Challenges
With any new material, challenges during the implementation process are expected. Two common challenges are material sourcing and molding issues. Both should be addressed and optimized during the testing phase of implementation.
Material sourcing is critical to the success of a molder’s recycled plastic product. Look for a reliable feedstock that can provide the volume of material required to produce recycled plastics with regularity. Variations in recycling processes can cause vast differences in the quality of recycled content. Finding the right feedstock will limit changes from lot to lot. There may be a need to test multiple sources to find one that is clean enough to avoid transferring unexpected colors, odors or residual additives to the product from prior use. These sourcing challenges especially are prevalent in regulated consumer applications, like food packaging. A letter of no objection from the FDA, or industry’s equivalent, will provide satisfactory verification that the material meets the necessary standards.
Next, focus on perfecting the molding conditions. Recycled material will not react the same way as virgin plastic during molding. Molders should experiment during the testing phase to find the most efficient and effective conditions for molding, which may vary by product, material and application.
Another common implementation challenge is cost, especially in countries where recycling is not mandated or subsidized through taxes and fees. Quality recycled material typically is more expensive than virgin plastic, so it’s important to position recycled material in applications that will bear a cost premium. That’s becoming easier as consumers demand more environmentally friendly products and OEMs commit to recycling goals.
PCR a No-Go? Consider PIR.
If manufacturers encounter challenges or determine that PCR is not viable during testing, it’s not the end of the sustainability journey. There are other paths to promoting sustainability in a company’s products. Embracing a more circular economy is a great way to reuse plastic scrap that otherwise would be wasted, decreasing environmental impact.
It is uncommon to find a manufacturing process that runs completely waste-free. A manufacturer should consider whether its waste management strategy could benefit from a circular recycling program that promotes the use of PIR materials. How can the company reincorporate plastic waste into its process? Can it be melted down and remolded into a new product? Can it be reprocessed internally or with a distributor to return to its raw form? If a manufacturer can’t reprocess its material in-house, its plastics supplier is the perfect partner to help determine if plastic waste is viable for reuse.
Ensuring Availability for the Future
Many consider low-opacity recycled material to be part of incorporating sustainable solutions in plastics. This recent innovation was developed by implementing stringent sorting requirements into the recycling process to limit colored material and residual inorganic content. But sourcing low-opacity PCR resins is becoming more difficult as reliable and dedicated supply streams are hard to find.
Recycling infrastructure in North America must improve to capture enough quality PCR content to meet the needs of plastics producers. It will be important for the industry to support improved recycling processes at the municipality level, until supply streams can meet brand demand for more sustainable products and packaging. Whether currently planning to implement PCR or not, manufacturers can help improve and stabilize future supply issues. Encourage local recycling programs to collect and process PCR content that meets current demand requirements. With long-term supply secured across the industry, more companies will be able to create sustainably recycled plastics products far into the future.
Todd Waddle is the director of the Wire & Cable and Sustainability market segments for M. Holland. Waddle has held various engineering, commercial and leadership roles throughout his career and is a certified Six Sigma Black Belt. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the Kent State University School of Technology, with a focus in polymer science, and an executive MBA from Kent State. M. Holland is a leading international distributor of thermoplastic resins headquartered in Northbrook, Illinois, with over $1.5 billion in annual sales. M. Holland partners with more than 4,000 customers annually and serves over 70 countries across North America, LATAM, EMEA and Asia.
More information: www.mholland.com