What is PCR Plastic in Packaging?
PCR, also known as post-consumer resin, is a type of plastic many brands are shifting towards to meet consumer demands for more sustainable packaging. More customers are expecting companies to be accountable for their impact on the environment with their business practices. From major brands to small businesses, sustainability continues to grow as a priority for everyone to do their part in helping tackle climate change by reducing excess pollution and PCR is one solution for brands to achieve their sustainability goals.
What is PCR Plastic?
Typically plastic packaging is made from virgin resin, but PCR (post-consumer resin) is a plastic resin formed from recycled plastic products, mainly plastic containers. The ‘post consumer’ refers to the resin’s source material which comes from plastics that have been recycled by consumers after they finish using the product which is traditionally done through curbside recycling or collection drop-offs. When the recycled plastic is collected, the plastic is sorted by type, cleaned, and finally melted down to create small resin pellets ready for molding into its next life. Recycled plastics processed into PCR include plastic bottles, plastic films, plastic buckets, and poly drums.
Not all recycled plastic can be processed into PCR and the availability of PCR is only as good as the supply from the recycling system. It’s important to educate consumers on best practices for recycling to make sure the correct plastics are being recycled in the correct way to ensure the recycled products can become PCR.
PCR is also a general term for recycled plastic materials that are reformed into resin, but PCR is segmented by plastic type since different plastics have different properties which we’ll explore further. Since PCR is made from recycled plastics, this means PCR plastic is also recyclable (assuming no other foreign additives are added to the resin) which continues to help prevent plastic from going into landfills and reducing waste.
PCR Plastics vs. Other Eco-Friendly Packaging Options
There are a variety of solutions brands are using to achieve their sustainability goals, but how does PCR packaging compare to other eco-friendly packaging options? We’ll take a look at some common sustainable packaging options and see how they measure against PCR.
The term biodegradable is often broadly defined as naturally decomposing or breaking down back into the environment with the help of microorganisms such as fungi, bacteria, and algae. However, the definition does not specify time and conditions. Depending on the composition of the packaging, some biodegradables may still take a long time to break down or may leave harmful residuals due to additives mixed into the composition.
Compared to PCR, biodegradable packaging is better for the environment if it can break down properly and safely. Be wary of how the term biodegradable is used as consumers continue to learn more about sustainability and identify greenwashing. If unable to break down, biodegradable packaging can stay in the environment and cause the same harm as virgin plastics.
Compostable packaging is a type of biodegradable packaging. The term compostable is defined as naturally decomposing or breaking down into non-toxic elements at the same rate as organic matter. Compostables are identified and measured by the U.S. ATSM D6400 standard (EN 13432 is the European equivalent). The packaging must meet these standards in order to be claimed as compostable.
Compared to PCR, compostable packaging is the best option for the environment since it will break down in a timely manner and won’t leave any harmful residue once decomposed. However, the range of raw materials that can be composted is limited compared to the spectrum of products with unique needs for their packaging. Often specific barriers or strengths are needed in the packaging to make sure the product is protected. The more complex the packaging’s composition is, the more likely the package needs to be composted in very specific conditions which can typically only be achieved at an industrial composting facility.
PIR is also known as post-industrial resin. Similar to PCR, PIR refers to the post-use of plastic resin after they have fulfilled their original purpose. However, unlike PCR, PIR refers to recycled resins from manufacturing processes which never make it to the consumer.
Compared to PCR, PIR is equivalent but is sourced from manufacturing recycling instead of consumer recycling. During the manufacturing process, often their waste is scrap and can be directly recycled plastic reducing waste from going into the landfill and reducing fossil fuels needed to create new resin.
Bioplastic packaging is a type of material that is composed of biomass or a blend of biomass with plastic, unlike traditional virgin resin which is only made from fossil fuels. PLA, also known as polylactic acid, is a common type of bioplastic that uses biomass such as corn, cassava, sugarcane, and other plants. With biomass, there are fewer greenhouse gas emissions, however, the resources needed to produce the biomass can cause a negative impact in other ways due to the use of pesticides, farmland needed to supply the raw material, and competition as a food resource.
Compared to PCR, bioplastics have the potential to perform better than PCR due to it being derived from renewable resources. However, its current life cycle still has many challenges that may outweigh its positive impact. In addition to the challenges with a sustainable and steady supply, disposing of bioplastics must be done separately from the current recycling stream or else it may potentially cause contamination. Currently, bioplastics are coded as #7 under the Other category which most recycling facilities will not accept, unlike PCR which can be recycled within its plastic category multiple times.
Types of PCR Plastic
The use of plastic products is deeply interwoven into our everyday lives due to its durability and flexibility. Similarly, plastic packaging is heavily relied on due to the different types of plastic designed to accommodate a range of products’ needs. The following are the most common types of PCR plastic which you may notice are similar to common plastics identified in the recycling system:
RPET (Recycled PET)
PET is transparent, durable, and lightweight. RPET is PCR derived from PET plastic packaging, most commonly bottles. PET is one of the most common plastics used in consumer packaging such as beverage bottles, sauce bottles, water bottles, jars for food, supplements, personal care, and more. It is easily identified in the recycling stream as #1 and is commonly recycled curbside. RPET is able to retain its durability and flexibility. However, its transparency may not fully translate in its second life from virgin resin to PCR depending on how it’s processed. Mechanical recycling is the traditional method of processing recycled PET into RPET, but can leave a yellow tint or small impurities in traditionally clear-looking plastic bottles. Mechanically recycled PCR is estimated to only be recycled 2-3 times due to the material’s degradation through the process. A newer type of processing called Chemical Recycling is able to preserve full transparency in the PCR material and allows unlimited recycling. Both processes give PET containers a second life while maintaining many of the virgin resin’s properties.
RHDPE (Recycled HDPE)
HDPE is durable and lightweight. RHDPE is PCR derived from HDPE plastic packaging. HDPE is also a common plastic used in consumer packaging such as bottles, milk jugs, jars, and pails for food, personal care, pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, chemical, and other industries. HDPE plastics are identified by the #2 in the recycling system and are also easily recycled curbside. RHDPE is a form of PCR that is able to maintain its durability, weight, and strong barrier properties. However, due to how it's processed, small impurities may appear in a PCR container.
RLDPE (Recycled LDPE)
LDPE can come in many forms, from plastic squeezable bottles to plastic bags, LDPE is a versatile plastic. Known as #4 in the recycling system, its rigid form can easily be recycled curbside, but its flexible form is more challenging and must be dropped off at a collection location since it cannot be collected with curbside recycling. When successfully recycled, LDPE can be processed into RLDPE which can be used to remake both its rigid and flexible forms.
RPP (Recycled PP)
PP is not recycled as often as the previous three types of plastic. Identified as #5 in the recycling system, PP can be used for containers, but it is most commonly used for caps and closures. PP was not commonly recycled previously, but now that more facilities are able to recycle PP, RPP is available to give a second life to this plastic. RPP is used to remake bottles and closures.
Importance of PCR in Plastic Packaging
Although PCR plastic is still plastic, PCR is a solution to create a circular economy with a material that traditionally relies on non-renewable resources such as natural gas and crude oil. We’ll explore the benefits of PCR packaging compared to traditional virgin resin packaging below.
There are a variety of benefits to the environment by using PCR packaging vs. traditional virgin resin packaging. By reusing existing plastic, PCR will help divert waste from going into landfills. Waste in landfills can leach toxins when decomposing which can cause contamination to water sources that filter into surrounding environments and even back into our own water system. Additional environmental benefits include the use of less fossil fuels, conserving natural resources, and releasing less greenhouse emissions since recycled plastic can replace the manufacturing of virgin resin.
By reusing an existing material source, the energy needed for processing is significantly less than creating new plastic. The energy needed to extract, transport, and process fossil fuels to turn into plastic packaging consumes valuable energy while reusing existing plastic will help eliminate steps and reduce your carbon footprint.
By collecting and processing post-consumer plastic packaging and converting it into PCR, waste is effectively diverted from landfills. The more recycled content is processed into PCR products, the more waste is reduced since a readily available material can be used instead of exploiting raw materials to create new plastic. Waste is created throughout the product journey, minimizing waste where you can will create a positive lasting impact.
Brand Image and Consumer Perception
As communities continue to feel the pressure of climate change, consumers are demanding brands be responsible for doing their part to help the environment. When you make sustainability a priority in your business, consumers will recognize your efforts and have a positive perception of your brand. The use of PCR materials is able to fulfill sustainability initiatives from reducing waste to protecting resources which can all be communicated through the package material choice and branding.
Regulatory Compliance & Standards
Global efforts are in motion to protect our resources and governments are getting involved with sustainability efforts. Regulatory compliance and standards are being established to help fight climate change. Governments are imposing plastic taxes to discourage the use of virgin plastic. Understanding that the immediate shift away from plastic all together would be impossible, many standards incorporate the use of PCR into their regulations to encourage the use of PCR plastic instead of consuming more fossil fuels for virgin resin.
Conserving resources is a basic goal for sustainability. Acknowledging that natural resources are limited, we need solutions that can preserve these resources for future generations. By using PCR packaging, resources from energy to new raw materials can be reduced and conserved.
Adopting PCR Plastics in Packaging
Once your sustainability goals are established, PCR packaging may be the solution to reach your goals. The following are considerations important to keep in mind when evaluating PCR packaging.
Regulatory and Policy Barriers
The foundation of all packaging evaluation starts with understanding your product. What regulations and policies may affect the packaging you can use for your product? Fortunately, with PCR packaging, many of the plastic properties are retained in its PCR form. Some products will have stricter guidelines, such as food items where the FDA will evaluate if PCR packaging is suitable for a food product on a case-by-case basis. It’s still important to make sure your PCR packaging will meet all packaging regulations to ensure your product will be protected.
Quality & Availability
The raw material procurement and manufacturing process of virgin resin is much more streamlined compared to PCR which relies heavily on consumers to correctly recycle in order to produce PCR from the recycling stream. As of today, often the price of packaging made from virgin resin is still more cost-effective than PCR. The recycling industry needs to continue innovating to keep up with the growing demand for PCR. In order to maintain each plastic type’s properties, recycling must be sorted based on each type of plastic. If other plastics are mixed in, it can cause contamination and ruin an entire batch of recycled plastic. Without a consistent source of recycled material, the quality and availability of PCR will continue to be a challenge.
Cost & Consumer Perception
Factors such as quality and availability currently make PCR less cost-effective than virgin resin. However, people have a growing awareness of the need for sustainable practices and will recognize brand efforts to meet sustainability demands. 71% of consumers are actively choosing products for their sustainable product packaging and a McKinsey study has shown 60-70% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. As demand for eco-friendly packaging continues to rise, brands who fail to prioritize sustainability may find themselves falling behind in favor of the competition which keeps up with a growing environmentally conscious consumer base.
Supply Chain Considerations
Although PCR packaging is gaining popularity as a sustainable option, finding the right partner to supply PCR packaging that fits your product’s needs can still be a challenge. More manufacturers are offering PCR, but volumes may be too high for your current needs or your ideal supplier may not be a fit logistically. In addition to finding the right supplier, making a change to your existing supply chain can be challenging as you work to integrate or transition a new supplier without disrupting your current operations. There are multiple internal factors to consider when looking for a partner that best fits your business needs.
Contamination occurs at the raw material level. One of the greatest challenges with PCR is having a consistent supply of quality recycled materials to be processed into PCR. The end user plays a vital role in ensuring the recycling stream has quality material to become PCR. Poor recycling practices can cause contamination in the recycling stream. When adopting PCR into your packaging, it's important to include clear messaging to help a customer identify best practices for recycling your packaging. With the total effort combined, a circular economy for plastics can be created.
PCR Plastic Packaging Applications
PCR packaging is quickly being adopted across a range of industries. As governments enact regulations to reduce the use of fossil fuels by writing solutions such as PCR into their legislation and overall consumer demand for sustainable brands, companies across all industries are encouraged to make sustainability a part of their business. The following takes a closer look at how PCR plastic packaging has been integrated into some top industries.
Food & Beverage
Consumable product safety and hygiene are achieved with the help of packaging which results in generating tons of waste. The food and beverage industry is notorious for single-use items such as cartons, trays, disposable utensils, and more. However, the industry recognizes the environmental impact and brand owners are adopting sustainable solutions including PCR packaging. With PCR maintaining its original plastic barrier properties, PCR packaging is used for food products in rigid packaging such as beverage bottles, and also flexible packaging such as pouches for food.
Personal Care & Cosmetics
In an industry where companies deeply value the customer’s perception of their brand through marketing and design, many personal care and beauty brands have been quick to embrace sustainability practices to enhance the appeal of their products which includes the use of post-consumer packaging. PCR is used for personal care and cosmetic products such as shampoos, creams, lipstick, mascara, and more.
For both household and industrial chemicals, strong barriers are needed to keep the product safe and also the environment the product is traveling through. PCR packaging is able to perform in strength and protection compared to its virgin resin form which includes many of the barrier properties needed for chemical products. PCR is used mainly for pails, and is commonly blended with 30-50% PCR to maintain the packaging’s integrity.
Pharmaceutical & Nutraceutical
The pharmaceutical and nutraceutical market relies on function over design when it comes to packaging. Product safety is also a priority in this industry, especially for pharmaceutical products. Much of the same packaging is used throughout the industry which helps with converting to a PCR option since the barrier properties can be replicated from its virgin resin form. PCR packaging is available as packer bottles for capsule and gummy products as well as jars for powders and other nutraceutical products.
The Future of PCR Plastic
Plastic will continue to be an integral part of our everyday lives, but every piece of plastic ever made is still existing in our environment. As we race to find eco-friendly solutions and create closed loop product life cycles to curb climate change, PCR plastic has grown in popularity as a possible answer to the overwhelming plastic pollution problem. Although PCR grows in demand, other infrastructure such as the recycling process and effective recycling programs will also need innovative ways to keep up with the demand. As more information becomes accessible The potential for PCR plastic has not been fully realized, but many brands are proactively embracing the solution and many more will continue to do so.
Make the Switch to PCR Today
Interested in switching your product into PCR packaging? Understanding the landscape of sustainability is a good start, but diving in and figuring out how to fit it into your supply chain may be challenging to face alone. At Paramount Global we partner with a global network of suppliers to help businesses like yours find the packaging that best fits your product. Many of these suppliers have dedicated resources to PCR packaging and Paramount can help streamline your transition process with our packaging knowledge and partnerships. As an expert in the packaging industry, we can provide invaluable information to identify the most effective packing solution to help grow your business. Contact us today to see how PCR packaging can be integrated into your business and help you achieve your sustainability goals.