With hundreds of large consumer brands setting targets to deploy more recycled content in their packaging, significant challenges must be tackled if the sector is to make its ambition a reality. David Clark, Vice President of Sustainability at Amcor, sets out why urgent action and collaboration is needed to drive progress towards a circular system for packaging.
As consumer demand for more sustainable products continues to grow, research by McKinsey’s global Sustainable Packaging Survey has shown that three in four companies have already made packaging sustainability commitments, with sustainability topping the charts as the number one driver for packaging design across all industries and regions. Hundreds of large consumer brands have gone further still with voluntary commitments of their own around post-consumer recycled (PCR) content — most commonly to incorporate 25% or 30% recycled content by 2025.
As the latest report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment showed, progress is being made on the use of PCR, which now sits at around 10% of all packaging produced in 2021. This is great progress from 4.8% in 2018, but there is still some way to go if brands and retailers are to hit the aggregate target of 26% by 2025.
Driving ambition on recycled content
The use of more recycled content helps to support recycling programs and drives down the need for more carbon-intensive virgin resin. It is a critical step in the journey towards a circular system for packaging. Yet the reality is that making products from recycled plastic often costs more. Virgin plastic is usually the cheaper solution, presenting a key challenge to businesses who now face the obstacle of how to handle the delicate balance of environmental and economic considerations in a competitive environment.
At companies like Amcor, where we have set ourselves a target of 30% recycled content by 2030, the ambition in principle is clear. The issue is one of scale.
On Amcor’s part, we have committed to driving innovations across our portfolio to ensure that all our products are recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. In support of this, we’re continuing to invest around US$100 million in research and development each year, working with our own in-house experts and new partners to find ever more innovative ways to incorporate recycled content into our packaging.
But that’s just the start of the journey.
Engaging citizens and communities
The ability to recycle used packaging requires sufficient community infrastructure to ensure that valuable materials stay within the packaging system and don’t get diverted to landfill, or worse, leak into the environment.
One part of the challenge is consumer engagement, finding ways to encourage and sometimes incentivize individuals to play their part by separating recyclable packaging from their waste stream. Many countries are already very advanced on this front with Germany leading the pack with a recycling collection rate for municipal waste of 67.4%. But that hasn’t happened overnight. It is the result of over three decades of ambitious government policy and buy-in from German citizens to play their part in a more sustainable future. The journey for many developing nations is only just beginning.
Projects like Delterra’s Rethinking Recycling initiative in Argentina and Indonesia are key examples of ongoing work to empower communities to build green, inclusive and economic waste management and recycling systems. These systems simultaneously create cleaner communities, keep waste out of the environment, and help scale the production of recycled content. Theirs is a different approach to Germany, developed with infrastructure and messaging appropriate for the community, and offering benefits in the form of safe job opportunities for local people at the sorting and composting sites.
Unlocking investment in recycling infrastructure
Having diverted spent packaging from landfill, the next challenge is the availability of recycling plants to process waste packaging into a usable form such that it can re-enter the production cycle and be deployed as part of a new product.
For PET alone, the ICIS Recycling Supply Tracker estimates that at least 1,800 new recycling plants with an average output of 25,000 tonnes/year will be needed globally to achieve 2025 targets. Plastics Recyclers Europe estimated EUR1.75 billion has been invested in new plastic recycling capacity across Europe. It is promising to see progress in this space including the development of ExxonMobil’s facility in Baytown, Texas, which will be one of North America’s largest advanced plastic material recycling facilities, providing Amcor and other customers with a critical supply of high-performance recycled material.
To help kickstart investment in further projects, we’re proud to partner with Minderoo on their Sea the Future initiative, helping to unlock US$300 million in investment toward three new recycling hubs in Indonesia, the Netherlands and Brazil that will together produce 150,000 metric tons of virgin grade recycled plastic annually. Our mission is to tackle the huge gap between the supply and demand of recycled content such that the price for recycled content starts to fall.
Investments into similar facilities for soft plastics such as the new facility announced by Morrison’s supermarket in Scotland just this month and Licella’s advanced recycling project in Australia are also positive signs of progress on this front.
Building market confidence, together
The common theme in all the examples above is one of partnership. Partnerships between packaging firms and their customers, between local authorities and waste management companies, citizens, communities, and non-governmental organizations. It is incumbent on all of us, including the packaging value chain, to play our part in supporting the transition to a circular economy, ensuring that the availability of recycled content meets demand and comes at a price that works for producers and consumers.
We must work with our customers and partners to ensure that consumers have the information and access to infrastructure that they need to play their part and ensure our future supply of recycled raw materials.
We must ensure that spent packaging is no longer viewed as a waste product but as a precious commodity that is to be managed and retained within the system.
We must continue to drive innovations within our own businesses to find new ways to incorporate more recycled content into our products.
And most of all, we must recognize that this isn’t something we can do on our own