When it comes to recycling and environmental product design, the ever-present plastic bottle cap has always been something of an afterthought.
But some sustainability experts within the packaging industry believe it's time to rethink the lowly lid, with the idea of a lighter environmental footprint. Right now, that seems to mean a focus on adding recycled content.
"There's been a lot of focus on the bottles in the past, but now is the time for caps and closures," said Allison Lin, vice president of procurement and sustainability at Las Vegas-based packaging maker Westfall Technik Inc. "We are seeing brand owners start to qualify and launch products with recycled content in caps and closures."
Lin was one of three speakers on a panel at the recent 2020 Plastics News Caps & Closures Conference, looking at how sustainability concerns are impacting that niche segment of the packaging industry.
Like Lin, consultant Sandeep Kulkarni sees a focus on recycled content.
"I think caps and closures definitely will sort of go in line with the rest of the packaging," said Kulkarni, president and founder of consulting firm KoolEarth Solutions Inc. "Similar to the bottle, where we have 100 percent recycled PET bottles, I think that the recycled content in closures is also going to keep on increasing and that's going to drive higher recycling rates. That's really where I see the future headed if I have to look into a crystal ball."
Traditionally, he said, incorporating recycled content in caps has been challenging because their small size did not make it economical. As well, he said trends to make bottles and caps lighter weight to reduce resin use could pose hurdles.
But Kulkarni, a former packaging executive at PepsiCo. Inc., International Paper and Georgia-Pacific LLC, said that efforts from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and consumer product companies are pushing recycled content discussions forward.
"I think that's definitely going to drive this initiative towards incorporating more recycled content in caps and closures," he said. "At the end of the day, I think there has to be a pull through from the brand owner."
Lin, whose company last year introduced a plastic closure with up to 100 percent recycled content, said that from a practical point of view, technology has developed to address manufacturing challenges with recycled resin.
"We have technologies now to look at designing the mold using the right hot runner to moderate temperature, looking at the pressure through the molding process so that we can account for the properties of recycled content," she said. "We don't have to wait for technologies that are coming down the pipeline.
"This is our time to be more sustainable for caps and closures specifically and start driving some of that change," she said.
A speaker from McLean, Va.-based food products maker Mars Inc., Paola Appendini, principal engineer for global packaging breakthrough technologies, said the company wants to use more recycled content while facing cost challenges.
"We have a big desire to incorporate recycled content into our packages, but then again we rely on our suppliers to really deliver the technology that will meet our specifications and be within certain cost structure that we can afford," she said. "We know there's a cost to sustainability. We're fully aware of that."
Some companies have been using more recycled content in caps: Coca-Cola Co. won the Innovation Award at the PN conference for a new cap design for its Dasani bottle water brand that uses 30 percent post-consumer recycled resin.