Skip to main content

Trends In Today’s Recycled Plastic Products

In this American Recycler feature, Raegan Kelly of Better for All contributes to this discussion about plastic waste and the transformative potential of bioplastic products like Better for All compostable cups. Better for All cups are made from a PHA known as PHBH, and they’re nontoxic, certified home compostable, and do not leach toxins or create microplastics.

The shift towards sustainable materials has the potential to address environmental concerns and meet the demands of today’s eco-conscious consumers. Discover how companies like Better for All are fostering a circular economy. 

American Recycler
Published on Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Trends In Today’s Recycled Plastic Products

From flexible plastic packaging to sportswear to landscaping products, the use of recycled plastics in new and innovative products is on the rise, providing a significant growth opportunity within the recycling industry.

According to Raegan Kelly, head of product and sustainability, and founding member of Better for All, we consume around 40 percent of all plastic as packaging, and a large majority of packaging is discarded within a year. Because packaging is often lightweight, soiled after use, and made of a mix of materials, only approximately nine percent of all plastic is recycled each year – the rest is incinerated, landfilled or escapes into the environment.

“To address these issues specifically, bioplastics designed to compost at end of life entered the market in the early 2000s in the form of polylactic acid (PLA), which is a relatively stable compostable material made from plant starches,” Kelly said. “PLA is commercially compostable, meaning it will be consumed by microorganisms that live in the soil.”

As Kelly pointed out, just in the last decade, state-of-the-art sustainability in plastics has moved from recyclable petroleum plastics to plant sugar-based commercially compostable PLAs to fermented PHAs, and from lab-scale material production to material available at industrial scale.

“Bio-based products have different performance parameters and processing requirements than petroleum products, and lack the substantial subsidies and lobbying infrastructure in place for petroleum plastics,” Kelly said.

PFAs, or Per and Polyfluoroalkyl substances are a case in point. Banned under one name – Teflon – in 2013, PFA manufacturers slightly modified their formula and flooded the market with nonstick additives and coatings under new names.

Plant fiber containers and paperware are sometimes lined with petroleum plastic to prevent leakage. When bio-based container brands and their customers requested plastic-free containers that didn’t discolor with food oils or absorb liquid, manufacturers reached for PFAs.

“Today’s consumers, especially Gen Z, demand more than incremental product improvements when it comes to issues like single-use plastics,” Kelly said. “As a generation coming of age in the midst of a global pandemic and climate crisis, Gen Z has emerged as a demographic that is deeply committed to principles such as sustainability and social responsibility. These digital natives are the most sophisticated and critical generation of consumers to date.”

So, what about PVC plastics recycling? LeeAnn Chen, global product director at Orbia Polymer Solutions (Alphagary) said industry reporting shows that overall use of recycled PVC plastics has grown steadily over the years. In fact, according to the Baker Institute, there was a 40 percent increase in vinyl recycling from 2014 through 2020.
“While manufacturers of industrial products have traditionally looked for cost savings by using recycled content, we are seeing increased interest from global organizations looking for end uses or recycled content in products such as flooring, roofing, multi-layer piping, and electrical cables,” Chen said. “The addition of recycled content will enable them to generate added value in meeting their ESG goals.”

In her role, Chen sees environmental awareness, government policies, voluntary industry participation, and ESG-focused governance as some of the key driving forces towards the increased use of recycled materials. In addition, she’s also noticed that consumer demand has been driving more eco-friendly options (for example, in consumer products like footwear and home products).

Recycled Plastics in Packaging

Alison Keane, president & chief executive officer of the Flexible Packaging Association, said flexible plastics are being mechanically recycled through programs such as Material Recovery for the Future, Bag2Bag, and Hefty ReNew.

Film and flexibles from these projects are made back into bags (Bag2Bag); roof cover board (MRFF); and plastic lumber (Hefty ReNew), for example. As Keane explained, even 10 years ago, this would not have been the case.

“Added to these programs is the drop-off program for clean and dry films, which you can drop off at store bins. This is then combined with clean film from the back of the store (pallet wrap and shipping stretch film), which also is made into other durable goods like plastic decking and concrete block,” Keane said. Chemical recycling is taking film and flexibles to the next level. Since we are particularly significant in food, health and medical packaging, incorporating post-consumer recycled content (PCR) back into our packaging is more complex. However, processes like pyrolysis and gasification can bring post-consumer plastic back to its raw state and made back into plastic resins that are identical to virgin resins. ExxonMobile, Dow, and the Consortium for Waste Circularity all have processes to bring more PCR to the film and flexibles industry. In the next 10 years, this will be the new reality.”

For flexibles, Keane said end markets still need to be identified and scaled. She pointed out that if brand owners are going to meet their goals and statutory mandates, we are going to need a lot more PCR and we are going to need highly engineered film and flexibles that are food and medical-grade compliant.

“The lowest hanging fruit, the ridged plastics, already have collection, sortation, and end-markets after processing. This is not true for flexibles; investment not only in scaling the technology, but the collection and sortation infrastructure is needed to bring recycling to fruition,” Keane said. Given that flexibles are second only to corrugated cardboard in the U.S. and much of that has a “plastic component, recyclers should see this as an opportunity and work with the supply chain to ensure they are part of that investment. Others looking to enter the market should see flexible plastics as the ultimate goal.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the recycling of flexible plastics packaging resides in consumer perception. According to Keane, traditionally, recycled content products have been seen as lower grade. In fact, it usually takes more funding and resources to make these products, but they are marketed as such. In addition, they generally have significant environmental benefits – from reducing virgin material use to less waste going to landfills, however, they are usually not marketed as such.

“Use of advanced recycling technologies, such as pyrolysis and gasification will change this,” Keane said. “A consumer will not be able to tell the difference between recycled content packaging and virgin material use. Color, clarity, feel, and shelf-impact of packaging will be the same and consistent from product to product, which will make consumer acceptance much easier.”

Plastic Recycling Trends to Watch

Many brands and institutions are tackling the issue of single-use plastics. Companies like Better for All, Sun and Swell, VEJA, Kaneka BioPolymers, and Blueland (an eco-friendly kitchen cleaning tablet from which customers dissolve in water to avoid single-use cleaning products) aim to change the game for single-use plastics.

Kelly said that by addressing Gen Z’s environmental concerns, businesses, and governments are not just driving change, they are inspiring a shift in consumer behavior towards more conscious and responsible choices.

“More than ever, manufacturers such as Orbia Polymer Solutions rely upon consistent high-quality and cost-effective recycled materials,” Chen said. “As the percentage of recycled content in products increases, it is critical that new recycled PVC-containing products look as good and perform as well as the products made with 100 percent virgin material.”

She continued to point out that, in general, consumers are becoming more aware of plastics recycling as they can take part in the recycling lifecycle and feel good about how their dollars have magnified impact on the planet, from choosing the materials they buy to helping dispose of them once used, through recycling.

“Especially when buying big ticket items for homes, consumers are looking for information on the composition of what they’re buying and how it helps them play their part in a circular economy,” Chen said.

Of course, Kelly explained that there are challenges aplenty surrounding plastics recycling. Namely, bio-based products have different performance parameters and processing requirements than petroleum products, and lack the substantial subsidies and lobbying infrastructure in place for petroleum plastics.

“Today, bioplastics tend to be more expensive than petroleum plastics. Furthermore, we run bio-based materials through machines that have been running petroleum plastics for decades, in factories that use toxic chemicals and additives to increase productivity (and decrease cost),” Kelly said.

Because of this, Kelly stressed that we must radically reduce our use of single-use packaging and find ways to build workable reuse systems, which will require a complete rethinking of the way we deliver and consume food, drink, clothing, home, and personal care products.

“This economy will be circular and foreground a wide variety of bio-based inputs, materials, and technology,” she said.

Based on Orbia’s experience thus far, the biggest challenges surrounding new products that use recycled PVC include ensuring parity in quality, performance, consistency, and cost compared to products using 100 percent virgin materials. Additionally, Chen said that the assurance of supply, consistent supply quantities, and infrastructure required to process recycled PVC are also critical for the ramp-up and greater incorporation of recycled materials into new products.

In the realm of PVC plastics recycling, Chen expects the traditional applications that incorporate recycled PVC to continue to grow, such as window profiles, footwear, and other consumer goods. Industries such as fashion and textiles, electronics, furniture, and interior design are increasing the use of recycled plastics.

“As companies find that they can offer quality products with recycled content and that consumer demand is there, we expect to see widespread segment growth,” Chen said. “Regulations, including incentivizing the collection, separation, and recycling of plastics, will play a positive role. And of course, the transition to a circular economy will help promote the use of recycled plastics by prioritizing recycling and reuse.”

American Recycler featuring Better for All