"The State of Plastics Recycling" is, well, one that still somewhat confounds the average consumer.
In a recent independent study funded by the Hi-Cone division of Illinois Tool Works Inc., Americans were the least likely to think that recycling plastics is beneficial for the environment compared with their other country counterparts.
The study showed consumers typically had a lack of understanding and trust in the recycling sect of the plastics industry.
Shawn Welch, vice president and general manager of Hi-Cone, a multipackaging solutions company, said in a telephone interview that the company wanted to know about consumer perception of plastic waste.
"We wanted to inform our customers of the facts and less of the emotions," he said. "And inform our research and development teams around how we should approach it going forward."
The study found that 26 percent of, or about 1 out of 4, Americans recycle all of their plastic waste, compared with 34 percent from other countries. Nineteen percent of Americans reported not recycling any plastic.
More than 5,000 consumers in the U.S., Mexico, the United Kingdom and Spain were surveyed.
Only 3 percent of that group believed everything they put in recycling bins was actually recycled.
The Itasca, Ill.-based maker of plastic beverage rings has a deep history in seeking the most sustainable options.
"We were invented out of a concern for sustainability — back in 1960 there was a lot of concern about deforestation and the use of paperboard packaging in the beverage industry," Welch said. "We were busy back then making a solution to eliminate the concern around greenhouse gas emissions."
Hi-Cone initially tested metal clips to keep six-packs of beverages together, but it didn't quite go as planned when they were sent off on the shipping trucks.
"We put the six-packs in the truck and opened the door and everything fell out," he said. "So we turned to plastic."
Light, pliable and somewhat elastic, the product became what is today. Using the plastic material cuts back on environmental concerns, and Welch is very proud of the "lack of material" associated with the minimal packaging of the rings.
"The perception is that more paper and less plastic is better for the environment; it's the opposite," he said.
A six-pack ring carrier is 3.1 grams of material and to hold the same six cans with paperboard is about 25 grams of material. Plastic rings have about 73 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the alternative.
Hi-Cone is taking what it's learned in the study and applying post-consumer content to its rings.
The rings going forward will have 55 percent post-consumer content, called RingCycles. The low density polyethylene comes from flexible packaging like furniture and shipping wrap.
"We have to stop thinking of plastic as waste and start seeing it as a renewable resource that must be disposed of properly," Jennifer Parr, Hi-Cone sustainability director, said.
Spain had the best consumer recycling out of the group and even had the infrastructure to support recycling flexible packaging — something Hi-Cone hopes to help achieve stateside.
Hi-Cone has partnered with Houston-based film recycler Avangard Innovative LP to bring flexible recycling to retail storefronts where people can deposit plastic bags, rings and rigid packaging items. The rings are 100 percent recyclable provided the infrastructure is in place.
"With claiming 55 percent recycled material, we're creating a demand for this type of feedstock," he said. "We hope it also brings more recycling capabilities online."
Welch stressed that Hi-Cone isn't a plastics company, but a multipackaging one — though at this point plastic seems to work the best.
A few companies have recently been testing carriers made from brewing pulp or simply glue, but Welch questions whether they would hold up in the supply chain.
"The variability in which the product is shipped, hot or cold weather, or if it gets wet — how does it hold up?" he said. "Glue is a nice idea with it being a minimal amount of material, but it does not hold up for the supply chain and would cost more for the customer. We've got to make sure we're making the right choices."
Armed with the information from the study, Hi-Cone hopes to eventually develop and test biodegradable rings, Welch said.