Why Achieving Reusable, Recyclable, or Compostable (RRC) Targets Are Being Missed
The Challenge of Meeting Packaging Targets: Why the Reusable, Recyclable, or Compostable (RRC) Triad Falls Short
The Ellen McArthur Global Commitment 2022 Progress Report and the Missing "C" of Compostable Plastic Packaging
“2025 target of 100% Reusable, Recyclable or Compostable plastic packaging will almost certainly be missed”, is one conclusion from The Ellen McArthur Global Commitment 2022 Progress Report.
The obvious question is “Why?” We can point fingers at big and small companies, misguided management, growing profits vs. meeting sustainability objectives, greenwashing, etc. And while the above comments are not necessarily untrue, we also need to better understand the data contained in the report.
RRC (Reuse, Recycle, Compost) is a widely used acronym in defining options for plastic packaging, but is somewhat misleading in regards to the progress major brands are making, in meeting Global Commitment goals. This progress should be more correctly defined as “rRc” with the middle R (Recycle) representing an overwhelming majority of demonstrated progress.
Within the ~65% progress made in meeting reusable, recyclable, or compostable (RRC) targets in plastic packaging alternatives, approximately 1% is Reusable and, as the Report indicates, 0% is Compostable (!). In essence, as of today, major brands are NOT offering any compostable plastic packaging among thousands of single use packaging products in the marketplace.
Compostable Biopolymers: A Viable Solution to Poor Recycling Rates in Plastic Packaging
The Three Elements of Viable Plastic Packaging Alternatives: Availability, Economics, and Infrastructure
What are the difficulties in offering compostable plastic packaging?
There are 3 elements when considering viable plastic packaging alternatives that would meet reusable, recyclable, or compostable (RRC) objectives:
(1) Availability of functional plastic packaging solutions. From technical know-how, to sourcing and understanding the nuances of working with Compostable Plastics.
(2) Economics of such solutions, scale adoption being a major part.
(3) Availability of infrastructure and regulatory support to assure proper circularity and/or end-of-life options for such application.
When the term reusable, recyclable, or compostable (RRC) was coined, there was a reasonable expectation that all three options would be considered and would be given a fair chance. Recycling did seem like an easier initial choice as a significant part of plastic packaging made from certain plastics (PET, HDPE) have already been a preferred packaging choice due to their long history of applications, wide variety of existing solutions, and an already existing and financially sustainable post-consumer collection infrastructure (e.g., “bottle bills”). With all of that, recyclable plastic packaging cannot be the only reusable, recyclable, or compostable (RRC) solution as recycling does have its limits. Assuring real recycling of plastic packaging is still a very difficult task, and we must acknowledge this fact. Even for the best of the category (PET beverage containers) the overall collection rate in the US is under 30%.
In addition, other forms of plastic material types (PP, PS, EPS) are recycled at much lower rates if at all. Major brands must recognize this fact and must work to both increase collection rates of recyclable packaging through various efforts (for example, in promoting universal deposit systems), and actively promote other RRC alternatives, especially for certain types of packaging that are simply too difficult to recycle, even if it may be technically possible.
Reuse is a very powerful option, but it has significant inherent drawbacks. Apart from the obvious need to assure adequate cleaning before repeated food contact, such plastic packaging is more expensive, and still needs proper end-of-life disposal. Several efforts by major brands to offer refillable plastic containers have not resulted in significant market penetration.
We believe that the use of Compostable Biopolymer materials are a viable alternative for brands, especially for some categories of packaging that have a very low collection and recycling rate. We believe that such things as coffee pods, tea bags, grocery bags, and other single-use packaging can be made from compostable materials on a significant scale. In fact, compostable grocery bags are the only flexible bag alternative that will be available in California supermarkets and grocery stores beginning in 2025.
Recent developments in compostable and biodegradable plastic materials have resulted in several food-contact products being offered in the marketplace. Such compostable materials made of biopolymers are derived from renewable sources. One of the principal benefits of such materials is that they can be both Compostable and Recyclable. Proper marketing, education, and some regulatory support would create significant opportunities for major brands.
Beyond Plastic's Vision for Compostable Plastic Packaging Alternatives
Developing Biopolymer Blends for Reusable, Recyclable, or Compostable (RRC) Compliance and a Sustainable Future
Beyond Plastic LLC., have developed a series of biopolymer blends and prototyped several products that would clearly meet the definition of reusable, recyclable, or compostable (RRC) and would offer viable plastic packaging alternatives for a wide range of products. Their approach to developing new food-contact materials is to ensure that products are 100% derived from non-hydrocarbon sources and they are certified by third parties as being environmentally harmless, even if proper end-of-life (recycling or organized composting) can’t always be assured. Beyond Plastic products do not generate microplastics, and would harmlessly degrade in the environment, if incidentally discharged.
Of course, more work needs to be done to assure that the “C” (Compostable) in RRC can be properly represented in the next Progress Report. We do need support from international brands in growing the number of products that would allow us to attract investments and improve economics. We also need to improve composting infrastructure that can only be done with proper regulatory support, as demonstrated in California.
But we truly believe that the right time is now for companies to commit to the “C” in RRC and to significantly grow a category that is clearly a packaging option that does not harm the environment even under the most unfavorable end-of-life scenarios.