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A successful package-recycling program is a numbers game, according to Jeff Brandenburg, president and primary consultant for the Greenfield, Mass.-based JSB Group LLC and QFresh Lab in Salinas, Calif.
“When you see that number, what does that mean?” Brandenburg asked, referring to a recycle emblem on a typical paper or plastic container.
The question was rhetorical, he added quickly, noting that few consumers know what the number means.
“What it points to is, we haven’t done the best job of education,” he said.
“All those numbers mean is to identify the polymer from which that package is made; it does not mean that they are currently being recycled or can be recycled.
Packaging manufacturers are aware of the numerical confusion on the part of consumers, said Cindy Blish, brand and communications manager with Shelton, Conn.-based Inline Plastics Corp.
“All products that Inline manufactures are 100% recyclable,” she said.
“We know that consumers are sometimes unaware of how to interpret the recycle symbol on the packaging. We are now embossing the containers to show ‘Please Recycle Me’ in two positions on each newly launched product. Most consumers are very mindful and want to do their part by recycling and this step was done to help provide further education.”
Much depends on what type of recycling stream a community has, and some aren’t prepared for all materials, Brandenburg said.
“Plastic Coke bottles are being recycled, but if you take a bag of produce with the same polyester film or polypropylene bag, one is currently recycled and the other is not, at least not as readily, so we as an industry have not done a great job of defining and helping people understand recyclability,” Brandenburg said.
Another issue is that individual communities decide what can be recycled, Brandenburg said.
“It depends on what the community’s recycling system is,” he said.
“We as a nation do a fairly good job of collection. We put this product in that bin. Sadly, most of those bins still end up in the landfill, because we don’t have the infrastructure to collect.”
Recycling likely requires a more standardized system, Brandenburg said.
“We need to get legislation passed to be actually get the system in place to be able to recycle,” he said.
Consumers could use some education on how to recycle, said Steve Lutz, senior vice president of insights and innovation with Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Category Partners LLC.
“I’d guess that if you surveyed the broad swath of consumers, you wouldn’t get a lot of thoughtful information back, aside from the broader trend of ‘I’m trying to recycle and separate glass, plastic and cardboard,’ but I don’t think it goes a lot deeper than that,” Lutz said.
What can industry do?
“I think industry can definitely have something that provides instruction and information for consumers,” Lutz said.
A good first step would be to learn recycling’s number system, Lutz said.
“I’m betting most consumers don’t know what that means; I’m willing to bet it’s a small group that actually acts on it and use it as part of their purchasing consideration,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought an increase in the “stay-at-home lifestyle” and, as a result, created more packaging-related waste, said Jay Singh, professor and packaging program director with the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, Calif.
“Pushback against the single-use-plastic ban has increased the demand for PPE (personal protective equipment), plastic bottles, disposable bags, sanitizers, restaurant pick-up orders, etc.,” Singh said. “Residential waste, according to a report, has increased by 25% through the pandemic.”
While that may have disrupted the global initiatives toward a “circular economy for packaging materials,” it doesn’t reduce the need to continue addressing the “related end-of-life challenges,” Singh said.
“Through this unprecedented time, consumers generally have stayed concerned about the state of the environment and the natural resources,” he said. “According to a research group, the consumers are increasingly concerned toward the environment rather than about the environment.”
Consumers are also claiming to increasingly show concerns toward the environment when the pandemic is passed, Singh said.
“Amplified, due to health and wellness concerns through the pandemic, consumers are also looking to maintain a sustainable lifestyle through accessing more local products, especially food,” he said.
“A regional supply chain is, of course, more sustainable than a national or international network.”
Package makers can make use of labels to remind consumers to recycle — and how to recycle, said Victoria Lopez, marketing representative with McAllen, Texas-based Fox Packaging.
“Using your packaging and label as a billboard for communication for your brand’s cause is the most immediate way of reaching consumers,” she said.
“Dedicate a small portion of your label real estate to sharing why this package design and application are on the shelf; include information that supports your decision, and, in turn, you will be building brand loyalty, because today, consumers expect companies to be honest and transparent in their corporate responsibilities.”
Consumer education is crucial to a successful recycling program, said Jeff Watkin, graphic and marketing manager with Collinsville, Ill.-based packaging manufacturer Sev-Rend Corp.
“Such groups as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition have been instrumental in this process by developing and supporting items such as the How2Recycle campaign,” he said.
“This type of education helps current programs by cutting down on cross contamination of the recycling streams.”
Education through collaborative partnership was one of the key reasons Fox Packaging joined the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, so that the company might extend the opportunity for brands to showcase the How2Recycle logo on their packaging, Lopez said.
“Our product line can be recycled through store drop-off programs, and this is for a very specific reason: Store programs sent these applications to a material recovery facility that has the infrastructure to process flexible packaging without downtime caused by thin films being caught in the gears.”
Union Gap, Wash.-based closure manufacturer Kwik Lok Corp. has a similar idea, said Karen Reed, marketing and communications director.
“It all starts with educating our customer so that they are aware of the variety of solutions we offer and choose the one that aligns with their regulatory environment and their values,” she said.
Consumers are confused about what is recyclable, what is compostable and what needs to go in the garbage bin, Reed said.
“Recycling doesn’t work if the waste stream is not clean, and some recyclable solutions have very high carbon footprints,” she said.
Reed noted that the How2Recycle labeling system is a useful educational tool.
“It standardizes the labeling system and clearly communicates the instructions,” she said.
Grower-shippers can teach consumers how to recycle, as well, said Brianna Shales, senior marketing manager with Wenatchee, Wash.-based grower-shipper Stemilt Growers LLC.
“It’s important to tell shoppers about the recyclability of a package,” she said.
“At Stemilt, we are working towards improving packaging recyclability through the How2Recycle labeling program. It tells shoppers exactly what needs to be done to recycle a package — for example, you can recycle a paper bag if it is clean/dry.”
Making recycling easier is the goal, she said.
“This transparency is something that we want to share so that the consumer doesn’t have to work hard to understand materials or recycle numbers,” she said.
“We also want to continually share ways to reuse packaging that isn’t as recyclable.”
Leamington, Ontario-based Pure Hothouse Foods Inc. relies on recycle/reuse in its packaging, said Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer.
“As a company, all our materials are recyclable and have been made from recycled materials,” Veillon said.
“We continue to include messaging on our packaging as well as on our website and through social media posts to encourage consumers to recycle all their packaging materials. It is an ongoing process to encourage consumers to recycle all aspects of packaging.”
The challenge in some communities is that not all accept certain types of packaging that can be recycled; this typically is the case in more rural areas.
The wide variance among local recycling programs is a difficult hurdle, said Julie Davis, director of public affairs for Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific.
“Greater education is needed and consumers find it frustrating if how to properly dispose of packaging is not clearly articulated,” she said, noting that How2Recycle is a helpful resource.
“We are glad to see an increased focus on finding impactful solutions for harder-to-recycle items, like various types of plastics,” Davis said.