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  • Michael Brown, Ph.D.

Packaging and Recycling Part 2: The Need for Packaging Systems

Packaging has many purposes, including product delivery (think shampoo in a bottle, milk in a carton), protection (cushioning for breakable products), safety (protection from inadvertent exposure), communication (product information) and marketing (product benefits and appeal). Some of these purposes are fulfilled once a sale has been completed, while others continue as long as the product remains usable. Every packaging solution is a balance between the intended purposes, functionality, aesthetics, and cost.

Environmental and social considerations are slowly coming into the equation for packaging, which is increasingly being viewed from a circular systems lens. This has prompted packaging developers to use more materials that can be recycled, which in turn presumes that consumers will be motivated to recycle the packaging, that there is a means to do so, and that once the packaging is collected, there are processors that will turn the packaging into a useful material that can be sold to create more packaging or other products.

None of this is a given.

On its own, using recyclable materials is not enough. What’s needed is a packaging system with three key elements:

1. Packaging materials that are made with recycled content and are readily recyclable and/or compostable

2. Technical means for collection and processing of recyclable packaging materials for further use

3. Markets for secondary uses of processed recycled materials including packaging—a virtuous circular system

It’s the last element that is particularly challenging as markets for recycled packaging materials can be highly volatile. And while there are multiple reasons for that volatility, one of the most significant reasons is the demand for recycled materials, which is fundamentally a demand for raw materials in manufacturing.

If factories aren’t running due to a global pandemic, no one will want to buy processed recycled material. Where a trade war disrupts established markets for recycled materials, alternative markets may not be able to absorb the surplus. And as countries that sought out recycled materials as cheap inputs to building industrial capacity mature into industrial powerhouses, lower quality materials may not find a home.

There are no easy answers to these challenges, but one possible approach to limiting global volatility in recycled materials for packaging is a threefold policy:

A) tax non-recycled content in packaging;

B) support Research & Development that improves collection and processing of recyclable materials; and

C) increase support for domestic manufacturing.

These policy tactics, technical improvements and regulations require heavy lifting and even government involvement, but they are achievable and offer immeasurable benefits to people and the planet.

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