Companies are setting aggressive goals around the use of recycled materials in their packaging, but they have a long way to go and a short time to meet them. Recycled material certification can help by offering assurance of the authenticity of materials, new ways of tracking material flows, and investment mechanisms that will advance the use of recycled materials in packaging and other applications.
Here are four good reasons to consider recycled material certifications:
1. Current use of recycled materials falls short of goals.
Driven in part by initiatives like the US Plastics Pact and the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, leading consumer goods companies have set lofty goals around the use of recycled materials. Some progress is being made: According to the latest New Plastics Economy progress report, signatories to the Global Commitment used an average of 6.2% post-consumer recycled content in plastic packaging in 2019, a 22% increase relative to 2018. However, Global Commitment signatories are currently less than a quarter of the way to their 2025 recycled content targets — and if total plastic usage increases, even more recycled materials will be required to hit targets.
2. A disconnect exists between post-consumer packaging and recycled content demand.
The challenge will be made greater by the fact that commitments to use recycled content in packaging exceed currently available supply, and what supply is available is largely used for non-packaging applications like fiber, pipe, and other durable goods.
Meanwhile, even as we have insufficient recycled materials to meet goals, materials like polypropylene and PET thermoforms are at risk of being dropped from municipal recycling programs due to lack of necessary infrastructure. To enable brands to meet their goals, we need investments to increase the supply of recycled materials and ensure that valuable materials are not being discarded.
In light of supply constraints, brands will also want to ensure that the recycled material they are sourcing is legitimate, and that claims about post-consumer or post-industrial status are accurate.
3. We need flexibility to take advantage of new technologies.
To meet recycled material demand for plastic packaging, it’s become increasingly clear that we need to look to new technologies. Mechanically-recycled plastics degrade with time and use, and they can’t always meet technical specifications, especially for challenging applications like food contact. To have any reasonable chance of mitigating the plastic pollution crisis, we will need to deploy multiple solutions, including a significant increase in both mechanical and chemical recycling capacity.
To achieve scale, chemical recycling technologies will require new ways of measuring and making claims about recycled status. Many types of chemical recycling technologies create feedstocks like pyrolysis oil or syngas that can feed into existing plastic production infrastructure, alongside virgin feedstocks. Mass balance accounting will be needed to track the use of this recycled material, even when it’s not feasible to physically segregate it from fossil feedstocks.
4. The Recycled Material Standard offers solutions to advance the use of recycled materials.
GreenBlue’s new Recycled Material Standard (RMS) offers a number of mechanisms to address these challenges and advance the use of recycled materials.
• By providing for third-party certification and chain-of-custody tracking of recycled materials, including distinction between post-consumer and post-industrial materials, it helps ensure that recycled content claims are robust. As recent Shelton Group surveys have found, consumers increasingly rely on third-party certifications to manage their environmental concerns by way of the products they purchase. The RMS enables trustworthy communication of recycled status to supply chain partners, as well as consumers.
• By enabling mass balance accounting, the RMS provides a mechanism for tracking materials through scaled-up chemical recycling, and offers additional flexibility for others in the supply chain. This flexibility will be needed to meet recycled content goals and ultimately prevent plastic pollution.
• By creating a new environmental commodity, Attributes of Recycled Content (ARCs), the RMS enables funding of investments in recycling infrastructure. Because ARCs quantify investments in terms of the tons of material reprocessed, they will enable brands to place their investments in recycling on the same scale as their direct use of recycled content. A company with a 30% recycled content target for its plastic packaging might be able to get part way there through average volume or mass balance claims — and then bridge the gap by purchasing ARCs to offset additional virgin material use. This means that even when recycled materials meeting their technical requirements are unavailable, brands will be able to help move recycled materials through the economy and demonstrate their commitment to circularity.
We face a steep challenge in scaling up the recycling system and optimizing the use of recycled materials in packaging. By offering traceability, trustworthy claims, flexible accounting, and investment mechanisms, the RMS will help to make this challenge more manageable.