LINCOLNSHIRE, ILL. — Robert Combs spends his workdays trying to figure out how Burt's Bees Inc. can become more sustainable.
As a senior packaging design engineer for the company, he looks at ways the consumer products company can change and reconsider packaging to allow those materials to be environmentally friendly.
And that work includes caps and closures.
"There's no easy answer. But you have to make a decision and live with it," Combs said at the recent Plastics Caps & Closures 2013 conference organized by Plastics News in Lincolnshire. "Set a standard and go for it. A standard is a direction. Live by it and succeed."
Caps, by their very nature, can be overlooked in a recycling or end-of-life discussion. Their small size, relatively speaking, means they can fall down the pecking order when it comes to sustainability.
Design considerations for other packaging can provide more impact, in the grand scheme of things, for sure. But that doesn't mean that plastic caps should be overlooked.
"I think we have bigger fish to fry. But I think it's one of those things we've struggled with all along," he said.
Burt's Bees, based in Durham, N.C., recently started participation in the Gimme 5 program created by Preserve, which manufactures items such as toothbrushes and razors from recaptured polypropylene.
The "5" in Gimme 5 is a nod to PP's resin identification code. The program provides recycling dropoffs for consumers' used PP toothbrushes and PP packaging at certain retails stores, such as Whole Foods, or consumers can mail the materials directly to Waltham, Mass.-based Preserve.
Caps, by their very nature, can represent a difficult proposition for the recycling infrastructure. Due to their size, they can fall through separating machinery and still ultimately end up in the waste stream.
Focusing on end-of-life considerations for these small caps requires a public awareness of the situation.
"The thing to do is drive education and understanding about what can be recycled. We can't go forward until we know what to do," he said. "How do you make things more recyclable? How do you drive reuse?" he said.
Combs, for his part, does not view the situation with frustration.
"It's more of a challenge," he said. "Everybody loves a good challenge."
A key, he said, is having a positive outlook.
"We've got to find something to do with the plastic. Some way to make it economically feasible to recycle it," he said.
Answers, Combs said, will come.
"It might be today. It might be tomorrow. It might be 20 years from now or two years from now," he said.