Design Strategies Evolve to Boost Plastic Packaging Recyclability

The disconnect between the growing global need for plastic packaging and the miserly 10% rate of global plastic recycling is powering strategies to rethink how plastic packaging is designed, says Preeta Datta, Sealed Air Corporation, in IFT20 session 218.

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By Elizabeth Brewster

The disconnect between the growing global need for plastic packaging and the miserly 10% rate of global plastic recycling is powering strategies to rethink how plastic packaging is designed, says Preeta Datta, Sealed Air Corporation, in IFT20 session 218.

Creating consumer-friendly plastic packaging that can more easily be reused, mechanically recycled into new plastic products, or chemically recycled into new plastic building blocks, will be vital to moving more plastic out of incinerators and landfills, says Datta.

Design elements that make flexible packaging attractive to consumers can also contribute to making it more difficult to recycle, according to Sandi Childs, Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR). Black plastics, for example, have historically been difficult to sort for recycling, says Childs, although sorting machines are now getting better at recognizing a black item, and new colorants based on different chemical compositions are easier to detect. Research and development efforts are ongoing to address issues that hinder recycling for black plastics, she says, and for tubes and thermoforms.

The APR Film Reclamation Technical Committee cites a number of guidelines for film packaging to enable easier recycling later in a product’s life cycle: post-consumer polyethylene (PE) content; standard “workhorse” additives; unpigmented, white, buff, or lightly colored PE; direct printing; and PE labels. The committee is currently working on clarifying guidance for ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) laminations, polypropylene (PP) laminations, nylon, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and other areas, and later this year will publish a catalog of design guidance from countries worldwide. In addition, this month they will publish new critical guidance test protocols for PE film.

No matter how it’s designed and manufactured, film can’t be recycled unless it actually ends up at the appropriate facility, says Childs. “Film is more challenged than other plastics on the collection side,” she says, with only 10% of film recovered overall. Store drop-off collection is proven but not high volume, so film—like other plastics—will ultimately need to transition to curbside collection to increase recycling volumes.


To learn more about addressing sustainability challenges related to plastic packaging, view this session in the on-demand catalog.

Registration for SHIFT20 provides access to the on-demand library of sessions for a full year.

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Kelly Hensel

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