Widening the Circle
It is perhaps no coincidence that in the list of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12) and Climate Action (SDG13) sit side by side. Efforts to protect the environment and combat climate change are inextricably linked.
Put simply, if we are to reduce global warming, we need to make more efficient use of resources and reduce emissions arising from the production of primary materials. This means TAKING A MORE SYSTEMATIC APPROACH AND re-thinking the way we produce our products, what we use them for, and how we treat them at the end of their “first life”. But while there is general consensus on the value of a circular economy approach – there are a range of different opinions on what this means in practice.
The paradox of plastics packaging
Plastics packaging is a prime example of the dilemmas, trade-offs, challenges and opportunities inherent in delivering on a circular economy – and, indeed, defining what we want to achieve within this new paradigm.
Of the 78 million tonnes of plastics packaging produced globally on an annual basis, only 14% is collected for recycling1. While a further 14% is incinerated or recovered to create energy, the rest is either landfilled or not disposed of properly. This contributes to environmental degradation in natural habitats – on land and at sea.At the same time, efforts to develop genuinely biodegradable plastics are a long way from success, and are arguably causing more harm than good for the moment. They also don't provide the economic value capture mechanisms desired for circular systems.
As a result, for many people, plastics packaging is incompatible with true circular thinking and has no place in a sustainable future. For others, it is a necessary evil, whose convenience during its use phase outweighs a perceived lack of options to recycle it at end-of-life.
But is this a balanced picture? While clearly it can be used to excess in certain consumer applications, for the most part packaging exists for good reasons that go far beyond mere convenience.
A case in point is food waste prevention. Of all the food that is produced, over one third is never eaten. This is due to a range of factors – but prominent among them are a lack of storage and packaging systems to protect food and keep it fresh. As well as having serious social consequences, food waste is also an environmental concern. It represents a strain on already limited resources and unnecessarily increases the carbon footprint that results from food production – one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
Plastics packaging helps preserve and protect edible products, increase food security and reduce food waste. Recent and ongoing innovations have meant that more complex types of packaging –can now perform these particular functions even more effectively than ever before. For example, a recent study into food waste in Austria showed how the introduction of a new flexible packaging, contributes to four times less wastage of sirloin steaks2. The same study demonstrated that an unpackaged cucumber is twice as likely to be thrown out uneaten than one covered in flexible plastic film. In both cases, the CO2 impact of the production of the waste food far outweighs the impact of producing the packaging.
Studies have also shown that the overall environmental impact of plastics packaging is significantly lower than that of alternative packaging materials – even taking into account what happens to these materials at end-of-life. So simply replacing plastics is not a solution because the environmental burdens associated with using the materials that might otherwise be used could be even higher than for plastics.
Nonetheless, both in perception and in practice, for many years the Achilles heel of plastics packaging has been – and continues to be - recycling.
Some forms of complex plastics packaging, like PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles for drinks, are relatively easy to recycle. As a result, they have been a long-standing feature of separate household waste streams in most developed countries.
However, up until recently, PET bottles have been more of the exception that proves the rule. And as EU targets for recycling of plastics packaging are made ever more ambitious, the paradox is that it becomes more challenging for recyclers to produce high quality recycled PET due to the presence of other more difficult-to-recycle products in the same waste stream.
The reality is that many of the most effective packaging solutions when it comes to preserving food and combatting food waste – such as flexible films — have traditionally been the most challenging to recycle.
For many of these materials, fully closed-loop recycling is not on the horizon - and may not be for some time. But does that necessarily mean that they cannot be recycled? Do they still have a role to play in a sustainable future? And if we were to phase them out, are alternatives available that would bring a higher net environmental benefit over the course of their life-cycle?
What are we trying to achieve with a circular economy?
A key question is whether “strictly circular” recycling (i.e. recreating the same product) should be the ultimate goal with materials like these? Is a fully closed-loop an end in itself or is a more holistic outcome-based approach to circular economy thinking needed?
This is sort of the question WWF is seeking to address with its “Cascading Materials” initiative3, which aims to promote different uses for secondary materials and help revolutionise the way we manage waste.
It is also this type of thinking that has led DuPont to invest in research and partnerships to explore new value adding solutions for different types of difficult to recycle plastic packaging.
Recycling the unrecyclable
For example, in Brazil the agriculture production required to feed and fuel a growing population has led to the use of hundreds of thousands of multimaterial plastic containers for agricultural chemicals. These containers help protect human health and the environment by storing the chemicals safely and effectively, but for the same reasons they cannot be directly re-used and should not be disposed of inadequately.
Thanks to technology developed by DuPont, the containers can now be recycled and remade into corrugated piping for use in construction. So instead of filling landfills, they are filling an existing need and directly and indirectly creating sustainable jobs.
Similarly, DuPont technology is helping to find new uses for complex packaging such as food trays which, as mentioned, can pose challenges for traditional pure PET recycling streams. Solutions are now on the horizon to recycle these plastics into high value applications such as textiles, carpets and car upholstery.
Finally and most recently in South Africa, DuPont has embarked on a unique project4 with different partners to develop new uses for mixed flexible packaging, while educating schoolchildren on food waste prevention, recycling and sustainability at the same time.
At the heart of the project were innovative multilayer food packaging pouches which preserve both food and water over long periods. The pouches first provided nutritious morning meals to schoolchildren. They were then collected to be recycled into raw materials for the production of school desks so the children could see the circular economy in action with their own eyes.
The R&D arm of the project has also uncovered other uses for the recycled packaging in products of value to society such as construction planks.
In all these examples, the key factor was the use of innovative additives developed by DuPont, known as compatibilisers. Up until recently it has proved difficult to recreate a raw material of significant value using mixed flexible plastic waste, because the different plastics would not bind together properly. Compatibilisers allow recyclers to mix together numerous layers of multimaterial packaging with other plastics and create a homogenous recyclate resin of a much higher quality than had previously been possible.
“The end result may not be ‘closing-the-loop’ but it is ‘closing-a-loop' "
For example, whereas before it would not have been feasible to create housing materials of sufficient quality, this new secondary raw material can now be mixed with sawdust (another recycled material) to produce wood-plastic composite planks that comfortably meet strength requirements of building standards for small houses in South Africa, and help address the urgent need for this type of housing in the country. What is more, the planks can then be recycled into the same product several times without losing their properties.
The end result may not be “closing-the-loop” in a strictly circular sense but it is “closing-a-loop”. Instead, we could look at it as “newcycling” as it contributes innovative and useful applications for a secondary material and as such has a legitimate place within a circular economy. Nature reuses materials not aleays to the original use but in the most resource efficient way and we should strive to do the same.
The challenge ahead
However, whether or not materials can now be technically recycled counts for little, if other barriers remain in place.
For example, unless the necessary systems for collection and separating of different waste streams are in place, the reality is that landfill will remain the default option. The onus is on governments and local authorities, with the support of the private sector, to make this a reality and draw on best practice in different parts of the world.
The next step is to ensure the uptake of secondary materials on an industrial scale. To get there, financial incentives such as tax breaks or subsides for recyclate materials can play an important role in the short term. But, ultimately this needs to be driven by increased consumer demand for products made in accordance with a circular economy approach.
In this respect, perhaps the most critical success factor is ensuring awareness, acceptance and support of citizens for recycling initiatives. The more people can clearly see the benefits that sustainable actions can bring to their lives, the more likely they are to change their own habits and encourage those around them to do likewise.
Innovations in recycling give cause for great optimism for the future, but the journey is only beginning and we all have a role to play.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Lucie Charbonnel is EMEA Marketing Leader for Industrials and Recycling at DuPont and has been working with DuPont for the last 12 years. She has worked on plastic packaging over many years across various companies, both in technical and development positions, and in marketing and strategy roles. She is now marketing lead for the Industrial segment, including Construction, Infrastructure and Polymer modification. Thanks to her diverse experience she has identified and developed high value end-applications in the industrial arena for various plastic waste streams. Mrs Charbonnel is actively involved in major industry associations aiming at advancing the plastics recycling agenda in Europe.
Sarah Perreard is Global Packaging Sustainability Value Chain Leader at DuPont. She has overseen the development and implementation of DuPont’s new sustainability strategy for packaging and represents the company in various circular economy initiatives.
She was responsible for the conception and coordination the Virtuous Circle a unique circular economy project which took place in South Africa in 2016-2017 involving multiple partners from industry and civil society and focusing on the recycling of food packaging into products of value to society.
Karl-Heinz Hausmann is R&D Fellow, Packaging and Industrial Polymers at DuPont. He has PHD in Materials Science and is an internationally recognized technical leader with a broad knowledge of polymers and polymer processing technologies. He has worked with DuPont for almost 30 years and is currently responsible for the development of new polymer solutions in packaging and compounding applications.
1. "The New Plastics Economy. Rethinking the future of plastics". Project mainstream analysis. Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2016.
2. How Packaging Contributes to Food Waste Prevention. Denkstatt (2017)