Chicago — Pledging to use recycled plastics in new packaging is easy. Actually doing it is a different story, according to an executive at one of the world's largest consumer goods companies.
While some companies have pledged to use 100 percent recyclable or renewable content in their packaging by 2025, Procter & Gamble Co. has put a 2030 goal on that idea.
Brent Heist, section head for packaging sustainability at P&G, said the reason is simple.
Getting to that point is going to be hard.
"We always put consumers first, and we will never expect our consumers to give up something in product performance and value," he said. "So that's a real challenge."
Consumers often equate eye-catching packaging with quality, and that will be a problem with some P&G products that used metalized plastic elements.
Plastic has solved a lot of problems that consumer packaging once faced, allowing for safer containers that are easier to handle, Heist said. He told the audience at the recent Plastics Caps & Closures 2019 conference in Chicago that P&G's popular Pantene hair care products, for example, were bottled in glass containers in the 1960s.
But plastic now also has its own set of challenges to overcome.
"P&G has a strategy of looking across the value chain and recognizing that our responsibility doesn't end when we make the package and sell it to consumers. There's a back end to this process that starts at the very beginning with designing our products. If they are not designed to be reused or recycled, it's the end of the story for that package. The best you can do is send it to the landfill or an incinerator," Heist said.
"We acknowledge that we have some big challenges and it's going to take a while to solve them," he said.
P&G also has a goal of reducing its use of virgin resin made from petroleum by 50 percent by 2030. "This is one where we have to make a lot of progress. Today, I can't tell you how we're going to get there. We know how we can get almost all the way there, but we wanted to set a stretch goal," he said.
"The other thing we have to realize is that when you are working with the public and talking with consumers, numbers matter. If we had said 40 percent or 45 percent, nobody would have paid attention. That 50 percent, when you get to half," he said, gains notice. "It's one that we're committed to. We have a gap to close. So we need to work with the rest of industry to figure out how do we get the rest of our packaging to that point where we can reduce our use of petroleum resin.
"So that's a few of our challenges. As we look at specifically at our caps and closures, if we're going to increase the use of PCR [post-consumer resin], which is one way to reduce the use of virgin petroleum resin, we've got a lot of work to do. It's been fairly straightforward in bottles," Heist said.
"This is one where the recycled PET and HDPE markets have really developed well," he said. "Polypropylene, the workhorse resin for caps and closures, is a bit more challenging."
Creating recycled PP in bright colors commonly used with P&G products is difficult with traditional PP recycling, Heist said.
One way P&G is advancing its work in recycled polypropylene is through a solvent-based recycling technology the company developed and licensed to PureCycle Technologies LLC.
The approach essentially returns used PP to a virgin-like condition while removing additives. The process, which Heist said is somewhere between mechanical and chemical recycling, is being launched by PureCycle in Hanging Rock, Ohio.
Heist told the conference crowd that coming up with "crazy" ideas, which might not seem feasible initially, is a way "to drive significant change" in the plastic recycling business.
"If you start off with crazy questions, you might get crazy solutions," he said.
Another key issue facing companies promising to dramatically increase their use of recycled resin is going to be the amount of such material on the market. With all of the promises being made, there are questions in the recycling industry about whether those demands can be satisfied.
Heist said a key issue as recycled content goals get higher and higher will be supply.
"It's interesting," he said, because of the large number of companies that have stated goals of using 100 percent post-consumer plastic in their packaging. "You always have process losses. As an industry, it's impossible to have 100 percent PCR in all of the packaging."
The Plastics Caps & Closures conference was organized by Plastics News.