PCR plastic is a sustainable packaging solution currently gaining traction in the pursuit of limiting the environmental impacts of product waste. Many global leading brand owners have announced their sustainability commitments to incorporate PCR plastics by 2025-2030. Before adopting this solution, you should consider the challenges you might face with PCR. PCR is not a perfect solution, and it comes with its unique advantages and disadvantages. First, let us discuss the basics.
What is PCR plastic?
PCR stands for Post-Consumer Recycled. Some people use PCR as Post-Consumer Resin. PCR plastics are end products of the recycling process from used plastics. There are many types of plastics in the market, but the most common PCR materials are high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The amount of polypropylene (PP) collected through recycling is less than HDPE and PET, making it less available as a PCR format. However, there are growing demands for PP PCR plastics along with HDPE and PET. The benefits of using PCR, such as reduction in total carbon footprints, and reduction of waste and use of raw materials, are already well known. However, it is vital to recognize the challenges of using PCR to make the right decisions. To understand the challenges associated with PCR, first, we must understand how it is made.
The most popularly used plastic recycling system, known as mechanical recycling, requires various steps, including sorting, cleaning, shredding, melting, and remolding. After the mechanical recycling process, used plastics become PCR resin used to manufacture plastic products once again.
Consideration 1: Quality – Degradation
Plastics are typically composed of polymers. The polymers have long-chain structures with various elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. During the recycling process, the polymer chains break down, resulting in degradation. This is why it is challenging to create packaging with 100% PCR with the same durability and performance as packaging manufactured from virgin resin. Most plastic can only be recycled a few times before it becomes unusable. There has been tremendous innovation around PCR, making it possible to develop 100% PCR packaging with good performance, such as the packaging used for Colgate-Palmolive dish soap. However, it is still one of the main hurdles associated with PCR.
Consideration 2: Quality – Impurity
In addition, not all recyclable plastics are recycled—quality matters. Plastics have not only different chemical and physical properties but also different applications. For these reasons, plastics that are collected contain various materials, sizes, shapes, and colors. Even though plastics go through an intensive sorting process, PCR resin can still result in some impurities. Therefore, recycled plastics generally must have good quality to be accepted for reprocessing. On top of the challenge of finding a steady supply of PCR, brand owners who wish to use such materials are also faced with ensuring that the supply they have found is of adequate quality.
Consideration 3: Supply
Lastly, as mentioned above, the supply of PCR plastics cannot support the growing PCR plastic demand. According to Waste Management, 25% of materials that consumers place in recycling bins do not get recycled due to contamination. While many consumers understand the importance of recycling, there is a general lack of understanding on how to recycle products. Raising awareness through education becomes one of the key elements to improve recycling. Short supply is not only due to insufficient collection of plastics but also lack of infrastructure. Because the U.S. recycling system depended on China for many years, the domestic recycling infrastructure was never fully developed. With the existing recycling technologies, it will be challenging to meet all the demands that companies target within 5 to 10 years.
Although we may have limitations with mechanical recycling, there are rapid developments around other recycling processes, including chemical recycling, also known as advanced recycling. Chemical recycling uses chemical reactions to break down plastics into chemical building blocks. Then chemical building blocks are restructured into “new” resin without degradation. Thus, it can recycle plastics that were “unrecyclable” with mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling still requires some developments, but this could be a way to meet the PCR demands in the future.
In conclusion, PCR plastic is a great sustainable option. It is essential to be aware of the challenges and use PCR as one of the options to achieve sustainability goals. ZACROS has been in the flexible liquid packaging market for over 50 years. We have experience and knowledge about packaging as well as materials. We think beyond the packaging with our innovations. Contact us to learn more.