Everyone acknowledges the growing interest in the use of recycled content for packaging and products.
Indeed, there has been a virtual explosion in PET recycling capacity, often put in place by companies that have decided to produce their own recycled resin. In addition, many PET recyclers are adding thermoforming capacity to make their own packages.
But, beyond that, it is less certain whether the use of recycled resin will become widespread or whether that will happen only if companies can purchase it for less than virgin resin.
Historically the interest in recycled content has primarily been in consumer packaging prompted by a push from major retailers, said John Calhoun II, co-founder of Custom Polymers Inc. in Charlotte, N.C, which owns recycler Custom Polymers PET LLC in Athens, Ga. But now we are seeing recycled content in products that manufacturers sell to other business and in [original equipment manufacturer] products. It is not only in the products retailers sell. We are seeing demand across the board for recycled content.
There is a lot of interest from personal-care companies that make things like shampoos, lotion bottles and makeup tubes, said Scott Saunders, general manager of KW Plastics Recycling in Troy, Ala. There is also a lot of interest in post-consumer resin for anything that sits on big-box shelves because it can help them with their packaging scoreboard.
But even with all the new interest, the question remains when and how firms will use recycled resin, said Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of Envision Plastics Industries LLC in Reidsville, N.C.
We have a lot of interest from personal-care companies. And there is a lot of furor to get sustainable and meet the demands from Wal-Mart, she said.
But she wonders whether recycled content is valued yet by consumer-goods companies as a path to sustainability since the discussion often turns to costs.
They ask you, 'Can you get me recycled injection-grade resin, and we say, 'Yes,' said Ettefagh. But when we say it will cost more, there is hesitation. It is still hard to sell unless you are below virgin prices.
It still comes down to costs, she said. The economics come before the environment. Companies don't want to change suppliers without a price advantage, if they are not saving several cents per pound.
Calhoun has the same concern.
The issue is do people want to pay a premium for recycled resin. We don't know. But we do believe for recycled resin to be sustainable, it has got to be on parity with virgin material.
Nicole Janssen, president of post-industrial recycler Denton Plastics Inc. in Portland, Ore., says there is a new attitude toward recycled resins. But she has the same concern.
People are looking at recycled resins in a new light. But the question is: Are they willing to pay as much for recycled resin as they do for virgin resin? she said.
Some skeptical recyclers believe the real interest of consumer-goods product companies is not in recycled content, but in getting their products recycled.
Right now it seems like their entire focus is to get their packages recycled because if you claim your product or packaging is recyclable, but it is not being recycled in a commercial way, you can't claim the credit on the Wal-Mart scorecard, said one plastics recycling executive. I think they just want to get their packages recycled and that they see lightweighting their products as a better path to sustainability than using recycled content.
By contrast, a number of personal-care product makers Aveda, L'Oréal, Clinique, Burt's Bees, Estée Lauder have a strong commitment to recycling and want to take back caps and cases, Ettefagh said. But there are still a slew of companies that scratch their heads and don't do anything.
Still, Ettefagh and others are optimistic about the future of recycled content. I see all the benefits that recycled-content mandates in California have created in consumer-goods packaging, she said. I think sustainability will ultimately drive the use of recycled content.
The whole sustainability and green movement has opened people's eyes, agreed Janssen. I do think recyclers are going to have more and more opportunities.
Recyclers also hope that its recent life-cycle inventory study released earlier this month that shows recycled PET and high density polyethylene resins use less energy and emit fewer greenhouse-gas emissions will help boost them higher on sustainability scorecards.
It shows the benefits of using recycled vs. virgin resin, said Ettefagh. There are some huge energy savings.
The [life-cycle inventory] will give companies a tool to track the carbon-footprint advantage of recycled resins in packaging and to make intelligent decisions, said Dennis Sabourin, executive director of the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif. This study gives us a science-based approach and hopefully will motivate the use of more environmentally friendly packaging and recycled content.
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