CPG companies search endlessly for packaging solutions that check all the boxes. Packaging must be durable, safe, flexible, and boast strong barrier protections while remaining cost-effective.
Add to this list the growing demand for eco-friendly packages, and producers face a complex challenge. How can sustainable packaging be achieved without compromising other key features?
Although there is no simple solution to these problems, post-consumer recycled plastics are the current most viable choice. Here’s a closer look at PCR packaging and why it matters right now.
What Are Post-Consumer Recycled Resin (PCR) Plastics?
Post-Consumer Recycled plastics or Post-Consumer Recycled Resin (both shortened to PCR) are plastics made from recycled materials recovered from consumers. These plastics are typically collected from recycling facilities but can also be reclaimed from beaches or oceans.
A common path of virgin plastic packaging to post-consumer recycled plastic packaging goes like this:
- The consumer uses a plastic product — anything from water bottles to cosmetics to detergent bottles
- These plastics are collected and sorted by local recycling plants
- Once sorted, these plastics are broken into smaller parts and formed into bales
- These bales are purchased by companies and ground into pellets
- These pellets are processed to create new plastics
Each producer will follow a slightly different blueprint based on their tech limitations and goals, but the PCR life cycle reflects this pattern more or less.
How Are Post-Consumer Recycled Plastics Used?
PCR plastics have a variety of uses in the packaging industry. An equivalent of nearly any packaging made with regular plastics can be made with PCR plastics.
Much of PCR is made from reclaimed plastic bottles and can be used up to two more times to create new ones.
PCR plastics are a great choice for making flexible packaging. Everything from the stand-up pouches popular in the food and coffee industry to cosmetics applications can make good use of flexible packaging options.
The ubiquitous poly-mailers from Amazon are made from PCR material. Advances in technology have also made highly durable, thin PCR plastic films possible. These films are used to produce pallet wraps, trash bags, and protective films for retail packaging.
What Is Virgin Resin?
Virgin resin is a resin made from petrochemical feedstock, natural gas, and crude oil used to produce plastics. Production from raw materials is an energy-intensive process called polymerization or polycondensation.
PCR plastics are made of the same raw materials as virgin plastic but are on their second run time (or more) through the production cycle to the end consumer.
What Is a Circular Economy?
Products are typically manufactured and consumed in a linear flow called “take-make-dispose”.
Companies source raw materials and process them to manufacture goods. These are then consumed and disposed of. The story ends with those materials ending up in a landfill.
On the other hand, a circular economy is a system that strives to reuse, repurpose, and recycle these packaging materials.
A plastic bottle flowing through a circular economy starts from the same origin as virgin resin plastic. After use by the consumer, the bottle is recycled rather than trashed, then ground to create PCR. This PCR may be used to make a flexible package for coffee or another type of packaging.
The cycle begins anew, extending the life and usefulness of the material. A fully-integrated circular economy is both environmentally friendly and cost-effective.
How Are Post-Consumer Recycled Plastics Different From New Plastics?
The major difference between PCR and new plastics is their stage in the production cycle and at what point the end consumer utilizes them.
PCR plastics use materials already circulating within our supply chain, while new plastics are manufactured completely from raw materials.
It is important to note that most PCR plastics are not composed of 100% of PCR materials. Depending on the packaging they are used to produce, the product will be a composite of both PCR and virgin materials.
Although PCR is suitable for most packaging applications, there is one area where virgin plastics outperform. For its superior clarity and transparency, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is the number one choice for producing water and soda bottles. RPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) tends to have a grayish tone, making it difficult to replicate these qualities.
What Are the Benefits of Post-Consumer Recycled Packaging?
In 2022, we have witnessed an increased focus on sustainability from consumers, regulatory agencies, and other influential bodies of power. Eco-conscious practices in packaging can make a brand more appealing to the consumer, among other positive benefits for PR and public perception.
Transitioning to PCR can help companies achieve these sustainability goals without sacrificing quality or affecting the bottom line.
Here are a few of the benefits of using PCR plastics.
Possibly the most important aspect of PCR plastic is its eco-friendly nature.
Packaging with these materials reclaims plastics and reduces the burden on our environment. PCR takes advantage of materials already in the supply chain and reclaims plastics from the ocean.
Using PCR reduces carbon footprint. Manufacturing packaging from post-consumer materials requires less energy and less fossil fuel consumption.
Reclaiming, cleaning, sorting, and recycling processes can be costly. But these costs can be offset with proper messaging and positioning. Over 72% of millennials said they are willing to spend more on eco-friendly packaging. Similar interest was found amongst Baby Boomers and members of Generation Z.
PCR materials can be used to create flexible packaging with no sacrifice in quality.
PCR plastics are highly moldable and can be made into any desired shape or size. The shelf appeal of flexible packaging like stand-up or lay flat pouches is the same when using PCR plastics. There is also no loss in designability when converting to PCR.
Flexible packaging already has a lower packaging-to-product ratio, so using PCR doubles down on environmental benefits. Less packaging also means lower transportation costs.
PCR packaging has all the benefits of regular plastic packaging when manufactured with the appropriate ratio of PCR to virgin plastics.
PCR plastics offer the same protection against light, oxygen, and other gasses as virgin plastics. The same barrier protection and strength qualities of new plastics can be produced using these materials.
The best packaging products are also child-resistant and have other great quality of life features. Protective elements such as zippers that help keep contents fresh and a smell and moisture-proof barrier are just a few you can expect from industry leaders like DymaPak.
Can PCR Be Recycled?
A major benefit of PCR is that it uses material that has already been recycled and saves it from the landfill. PCR is useful beyond its first time through recycling programs.
PCR can be recycled up to seven or nine times depending on the use. For some applications. such as water bottles, after one or two rounds of recycling, the durability will degrade. These materials will no longer be useful for making new products like water bottles, food packaging, or other packaging requiring high durability.
At that point, these plastics can be downcycled for other purposes. These materials can be reused and repurposed to create carpet fibers, fleece textiles, or composite lumbers.
Is PCR Plastic Biodegradable?
For packaging to be considered biodegradable, it must check two boxes:
- The materials must be able to break down in a compostable setting
- Once broken down, the remnants left behind must be non-toxic
Unlike bioplastics which are made from cellulose and other plant material, PCR plastics are not biodegradable.
Can PCR Packaging Be Composted?
Packaging is considered compostable if it can break down into water, carbon dioxide, and other organic materials as quickly as paper. PCR is not compostable.
Although many packaging options are biodegradable and compostable, this requires action on the consumer end. Much packaging with these certifications does not end up in the proper facility and heads to the landfill instead.
Using PCR plastics means a company is getting ahead of that outcome and taking the solution into its own hands.
The Bottom Line
The benefits of incorporating PCR into your new packaging plan are clear.
By partnering with DymaPak, you get packaging solutions that fit the bill in every way, building an eco-conscious brand image while maintaining cost-efficiency and child-resistant packaging in one sustainable package.
Specifying PCR? Find Answers to These Eight Questions | Plastics Technology
Plastics and the Circular Economy | ASTM International