Pushing up recycling: Amcor VP discusses regulation and technology for better waste management
15 Dec 2022 --- Plastic recycling has recently been criticized for lacking efficiency due to low innovation and funding measures. Furthermore, due to insufficient global and local waste infrastructures, end consumers are often unsure of how to dispose of their packaging.
In this interview with PackagingInsights, David Clark, vice president for sustainability at Amcor, highlights the important role that governments play in providing waste management and recycling services as a public good.
We also discuss the key markets for reusable packaging systems and the factors to be considered when opting for reusability. Often packaging cannot be reused, which requires different solutions such as compostable or recyclable applications.
Clark highlights the ways in which chemical recycling can be recognized as a credible form of recycling. We also delve into the long term solution bioplastics could provide as an alternative to fossil-based plastics.
What are the main challenges for effective plastic recycling and what can policymakers do to help?
Clark: One of the biggest challenges to effective recycling is ensuring the entire value chain is lined up properly and that, in fact, recycling for all types of materials is provided. From suppliers to manufacturers, customers to consumers, consistency across the value chain is difficult to achieve in a standard that works in practice.
One challenge is aligning the material and design standards for product recyclability. Another challenge is that the inconsistency of global and local waste infrastructure makes it hard for the end user to know what is recyclable, reusable or compostable. Consumers often don’t know which bin they should be using to recycle which product. Another significant challenge is the lack of meaningful waste infrastructure or the commitment from local and regional governments to improve infrastructure so packaging can be recycled.
Harmonizing design-for-recyclability standards and waste management infrastructure can help resolve these challenges. Governments have an important role to play in providing waste management and recycling services as a public good. As governments become more active in this space, it is important that they work with the whole packaging value chain to deliver effective policy solutions and the intended outcomes.
What about the environmental sustainability of reuse and refill solutions?
Clark: Reuse and refill packaging has a role to play. Amcor was the first global packaging company to pledge to design all products to be recycled, composted or reused by 2025. We purchased 155,000 metric tons of recycled material in FY22, up from 56,000 in FY19, in an effort to promote recycling and reuse in our packaging products.
One of our key markets for reusable packaging systems is refillable beverage containers. An example of this is our durable PET bottles for water and carbonated soft drinks, which can last for up to 25 uses and are developed in collaboration with major beverage companies for use in markets that have refill programs for such products. We also offer dispensers and refill containers for refill-at-home, which enable reuse and reduce the amount of packaging required to deliver and use home- and personal-care products.
Yet while reuse and refill packaging can play a significant role in certain product ranges, different situations require different solutions. Some products may adapt more easily to reusable packaging than others. Product format, shipping distances, shelf life and other factors need to be taken into account.
For example, medical products come in packaging that, for safety reasons, often cannot be reused and refilled. Instead a different approach needs to be taken. This can mean working to develop solutions that are compostable or recyclable when the packaging required cannot be reused for a product that needs to be safely wrapped to protect it and allow it to be transported around the globe.
How are partnerships supporting Amcor’s strategy to increase the use of advanced recycling materials?
Clark: In Australia, we partnered with the local industry on an advanced recycling feasibility study. These findings supported Australia’s first advanced recycling plant. The resulting report highlighted the benefits of establishing a local circular economy for flexible plastic, focusing on advanced recycling as a key opportunity to capture plastics underserved by existing recycling infrastructure, such as food packaging.
Through our work with ExxonMobil, Amcor was the first company to purchase certified-circular PE resin using ExxonMobil’s Exxtend technology for advanced recycling. We’re increasing the use of chemically recycled materials through this partnership, allowing plastic waste to be converted into brand-new products that share both quality and performance rather than from those made with virgin raw materials.
More recently, we announced a five-year deal with ExxonMobil to purchase certified-circular PE material to support our target to achieve 30% recycled material across its portfolio by 2030. The volume of this material will increase each year, peaking at 100,000 metric tons annually at the end of the five years, and we are committed to continue to make progress through collaboration in order to increase the use of advanced recycling material.
What do you make of recent criticisms of advanced recycling technology?
Clark: While we acknowledge that advanced recycling is relatively new and needs to be evaluated as it scales, it’s also an opportunity that could lead to significant positive change. We’re mindful that this process requires caution and regulation, and we have partnered with the Consumer Goods Forum’s Plastic Waste Coalition of Action to co-author the “Chemical Recycling in a Circular Economy for Plastics: A Vision and Principles” report. The report provides a shared view of the role of chemical recycling in a circular economy for plastics while also ensuring positive environmental outcomes. It also aims to ensure the right regulatory framework exists to enable chemical recycling to be recognized as a credible form of recycling, that its use is supported and encouraged by regulators, and that the outputs can be utilized to meet market demands – especially for food-grade material.
What about bioplastics and biodegradable solutions? Are they long term conventional plastic replacements or just a “gap filler” amid the on-going oil crisis?
Clark: Bioplastics and other materials from renewable sources have a role to play and will continue to play a long term role as a replacement solution. In FY22, we purchased nearly 410,000 metric tons of biomaterials – they offer our customers an alternative, reducing their use of materials made from fossil fuels.
Given the time required to develop technology, material supply chains, and infrastructure to scale bioplastic production, these solutions will have a long term focus. Of course, they may benefit in the short term from the oil situation in some parts of the world, which could accelerate their development.
In the last year, Amcor announced a partnership with Tipa to convert and market their range of compostable packaging materials in Australia. We are also exploring compostable packaging opportunities in other regions. As the raw materials, technologies, and infrastructure for composting continue to develop, so will the opportunities for compostable packaging solutions.
By Natalie Schwertheim
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