The Recycling Conundrum: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

September 23, 2011

The Recycling Conundrum:  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

by Eric Hartman, Product Ventures VP Technologies and Commercialization 

But what if you can’t get enough recycled material to continue to manufacture your product?

In the hierarchy of environmental consciousness, reducing the amount of material that a company uses to produce its products and its packaging is the simplest and most cost effective way to lessen the impact of a company’s business on the environment. Alternatively, developing ways for a company’s product or packaging to be reused for a like or different purpose can also have a positive influence on a company’s environmental footprint.

The last and most often flaunted approach, to improving sustainability for a company, is to make use of recycled materials or to utilize materials which can be most easily recycled.

In the US in 2005, curbside recycling was available to almost 140,000,000 people, or almost half of the total US population. These curbside collection plans accounted for over 2.1 billion pounds of post consumer plastic bottles being recycled in 2005, or about 24% by weight of all the plastic bottles produced in the US. The resin that is currently recycled in the US is mostly comprised of PET or HDPE, since these materials account for the lion’s share of the resins that are used in common easily identifiable and sort-able plastic bottles. These are usually identifiable by form or format and support a strong demand for the use of these lower cost materials in both like and alternative markets and applications.

Unfortunately, if you are a producer of a product that does not utilize either PET or HDPE or cannot easily be adapted to use one of these two materials, the opportunity to make use of recycled materials for your product can be extremely limited.

So, what do you do?

Back in 2008, Aveda launched Vintage Clove Shampoo to celebrate the lifestyle brand’s 30th anniversary. The Vintage Clove bottle is made from 96% post-consumer recycled (PCR) high-density polyethylene and employs a 100% PCR polypropylene closure that represents the first fruit of The Estée Lauder Companies’ effort at establishing a nationwide cap collection program.

At that time, and still today, PP or SPI code #5 plastic is not widely recycled in the US although it is one of the most widely used of all the common commodity plastic resins. When Aveda decided that it wanted to create closures for its product from recycled PP it had no readily available source of supply for the post consumer PP. So Aveda created a recycling program by enlisting the aid of more than 600 schools and youth organizations nationwide, along with a number of Aveda salons and Experience Center retail stores. Aveda created a collection program for used closures and other easily identifiable PP packages, with the help of its partner organizations, in order to begin to ensure a steady supply of material that could be recycled and reprocessed into closures for its shampoo. Since 2008, the program has collected more than 150,000 lbs of plastic, or roughly 17 million closures, which have been cleaned, ground, and processed into resin pellets. This reprocessed material is then molded into new closures by a typical injection molding process.

The high level of recycled content (96 percent) used to be thought impossible, and the ability to utilize alternate recycled materials (in this case polypropylene) was not possible due to a lack of collection. Aveda conquered both of these through creative thinking (collecting PP caps at their salons, creating a closed-loop system) and science (how best to leverage and maximize recycled content without impacting performance or quality.)

While the Aveda story is an excellent example of a company taking the initiative to develop a recycling infrastructure where none previously existed in order to obtain materials for their products, one could say that it’s old news. In the time since Aveda launched its program, a few other companies have also begun to develop closed loop recycling programs in order to ensure a reliable supply of post consumer recycled materials for their products. A more recent example of a company wanting to ensure consistent material supplies is Recycline Inc., which manufactures and markets Preserve® Products.

Recycline’s focus is the development of high performance, eco-friendly products. Recycline was founded in 1996 by Eric Hudson, who focused on developing products that use resources more efficiently and responsibly. At the time plastic recycling was going strong, (stronger in terms of overall % of material recycled than today) but the use of recycled material in a class 1 medical device (i.e. a toothbrush) was unheard of.

In order to meet the demands for marketing an FDA regulated product, Recycline developed a methodology that would enable them to collect, sort, clean and test polypropylene and reprocess it into safe marketable products. They set up an infrastructure for their “Gimme
5” program that collects various products made from polypropylene at partner stores like Whole Foods markets, through the use of collection bins placed in-store. In addition, they have established a mail in program where customers are encouraged to return their used product to the company through the mail once they are done with it.

The packaging that Preserve toothbrushes come in can be used as a return mailer for the toothbrush once it has reached the end of its life.

In order to encourage customers to mail in the products, Recycline investigated the costs of shipping and communicated those costs on their website: “Did you know that USPS charges Preserve $1.40 for each return through the postage paid program? Yet, for 44 cents you can send it back to us for recycling via first class mail. This got us thinking, what if we ask you to pay the postage, but then give you rewards worth more than a stamp (through product discounts, coupons, access to product samples and other offers). When we asked you about this change, you gave us your resounding support. To make the transition easier, we’re continuing to pay the postage for the first 250,000 Mail Back Packs. After that, we’ll have a rewards system in place.”

This is a great example of a company communicating to consumers that in order to improve the health of the planet, they have to be active participants in recycling, either from a change in behavior or from a willingness to share some of the financial burden. But the company goes an extra step by developing programs that minimize and/or alleviate the financial burden for the consumer through the use of incentives or coupons.

In addition to the mail and in store return programs, Recycline partnered with Stonyfield Farm as a way to keep plastic out of landfills and secure a source of resin supply for their products. Recycline collects cups and scrap plastic from Stonyfield’s manufacturing facility in nearby New Hampshire, and reprocess it into new Preserve products. You might think that the use of recycled materials in either medical or food contact applications would never be sanctioned by the FDA due to uncertainties inherent in the recycling stream. However in recent years, we have seen an increased willingness of the FDA to consider allowing the use of recycled materials in applications that were once thought to be untouchable, provided that the necessary system checks and test programs are in place to insure that the end product delivered to the consumer is safe for its intended use.

Recycling materials and using recycled materials is, in my mind, the least desirable option of the 3R’s of packaging sustainability, however it’s so much better than continuing the status quo of virgin material supply and use. As more companies, like Estee lauder and Recycline, take up the challenge to develop recycling infrastructures where none previously existed, perhaps we’ll reach a tipping point where the use of virgin materials and products derived from fossil sources is outpaced by the use of those same products and materials derived from recycling efforts. If the chemistry and integrity of the materials remains viable and functionality is not compromised, then perhaps these materials could become sustainable. If not completely sustainable, then perhaps there is an argument for sourcing recyclable materials from the landfills that we’ve been filling up for the last half century. After all, we know that in landfills, plastics do not degrade .......


Eric Hartman is the Director of Packaging Technologies and Commercialization for Product Ventures.
Contact Eric at 203.319.1119 or 

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