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Recycling a Key Focus at The Packaging Conference

Packaging trends, innovation and initiatives were discussed—all with an emphasis on sustainability.  


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The packaging landscape continues to evolve. While plastic packaging is getting a bit beat up by mainstream news and various social media posts, the packaging industry is focused on sustainability. This was especially apparent during The Packaging Conference (Las Vegas; Feb. 4-6) where sustainability was mentioned throughout almost every presentation. Let’s take a closer look at some of the trends, innovation and initiatives discussed when it comes to embracing the whole sustainable package. 

Consumer Demand 

Valeria Orozco, director of sustainability at Nestlé Waters, presented the keynote where she discussed how the brand is focused on helping to achieve a more circular economy for plastic. For instance, at the end of 2018, Nestlé announced it will achieve 25 percent recycled plastic across its U.S. domestic portfolio by 2021. The company plans to continue expanding its use of recycled materials in the coming years, setting an ambitious goal of reaching 50 percent recycled plastic by 2025. But the objectives come with challenges including a lack of food grade recycled PET. In addition, Orozco says there is a need for improved standards for recyclability as well as new technology including robotics/optical sorting and other high-end equipment. Nestlé has invested in production infrastructure to blend virgin plastic with rPET in almost 25% of its factories in North America (you can read more about here). She also mentioned the company’s focus on inspiring consumers to recycle.

Consumer demand was also an emphasis from David Feber, partner at McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm. He discussed packaging megatrends, which include increasing pressure for sustainability. He said that public awareness of plastic leakage into the environment has increased significantly over the past 12-15 months to an all-time high.

Also, in the U.S., governments are enacting more regulations against plastics with even more policies proposed. For instance, currently there are 75 policies in the U.S. compared to 23 in 2015. He said a key question for the packaging industry to consider is: what product and technology level sustainability investments am I or should I be making to position for increased demands on product sustainability?


Glenn Goldman, marketing director, specialty plastics with Eastman Chemical, discussed the company’s work with shrink-film labels. While shrink labels work to differentiate brands, recycling has been an issue. The challenge is to develop one solution that works in all different environment and conditions. The way Eastman thinks about it is a portfolio approach with multiple solutions that try to address different conditions that exist.

The Eastman Smart Recycle Portfolio includes: Eastman Embrace Encore copolyester, which forms a clear shrink label that can be recycled with PET; Eastman Embrace Float​​​​ copolyester, which forms an opaque, low-density shrink label that floats in water; and Sun Chemical SunLam De-seaming Adhesive, which replaces a traditional solvent seam, enabling label removal in the wet recycling process.

Morris De Marchi, vice present of operations for Sipa North America Inc., presented the company’s Xtreme Renew technology. The technology combines two machines, the Vacurema system by Erema and Xtreme by Sipa. This single-step system is for producing preforms of food-grade quality, using up to 100% recycled PET from washed flakes.

“The concept of a circular economy—our machine was developed for this,” he said. “We need to increase collection but a high quality of flake is needed.”

Marchi outlined the business case associated with the first Xtreme Renew running in a production environment, which took place this past summer in Japan and makes 50,000 preforms an hour. He said the machine answers most of challenges with recycled PET: food safety, stable IV, color and safety control. It also reportedly enables 30 percent energy savings in the single-step system versus traditional rPET recycling stream and preform production. 

Improve Plastics’ End of Life

Jennifer Ronk, sustainability and advocacy manager, North America, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, discussed how the entire value chain needs to work together to improve how we manage plastics at the end of life, from improved collection and sorting to investing in innovations like chemical recycling.

“We have to take ownership of hope—be willing to say ‘Yes, this is a problem,’ and be willing to change it,” she said. “And we need to be part of the solution so people understand we see this problem and will work together to solve it.” 

Ronk said that Dow is focused on three pillars: no plastics in the environment; drive a circular economy; and increase impact through partnerships. Examples include being part of the Operation Clean Sweep program and participate in clean-ups in the environment. She also highlighted that the company is looking at opportunities in chemical recycling—saying that they have to be open to what’s possible so they can figure out solutions.

Other initiatives include in India, Dow worked with collaborators to transform more than 100 metric tons of flexible plastic waste into material used to build longer lasting roads. In 2019, Dow constructed two roads in Freeport, TX using 1,683 lb of PCR (equivalent to nearly 120,000 plastic grocery bags).

“What I love about that project is that people didn’t think could happen in the U.S., but we managed to do it,” Ronk said. “In a way, that saved the company money over using traditional materials but still held up to performance standards.”

She ended her presentation with a call to act of sorts: mobilize employees and families to participate in a clean-up, which she says is a simple way to raise awareness and let people know they can be part of a solution. She also mentioned designing for circularity and encourage re-use and to think about how the products you make fit into the system and how we can support this system and improve. 

“Let’s all be part of solution, take ownership of hope because this is a problem we can solve,” she said. “We understand where the problems are and where solutions need to be. We can’t recycle ourselves out of the problem itself but we can do things to make it much better.”