Since 2008, a TerraCycle brigade has collected 234 million-plus juice pouches that have taken on second lives as plastic lumber, park benches, picnic tables, watering cans and flower pots.
While remarkable, it’s just a drop in the proverbial recycling bin in a country that sips, chews and cleans its way through 80 billion single-material and multi-layer pouches annually, according to an April 2014 report by the Freedonia Research Group.
Most all of it—a laminated hodgepodge of plastics and aluminum—goes directly into the rubbish can. Thus, it’s little wonder that zero-waste and circular-economy champions deplore the disconnect between pouch designers and confounded materials recovery facilities (MRFs).
Is it possible to move the recycling needle on lightweight packaging that’s touted for extending products’ shelf life and reducing carbon emissions on the shipping front?
In a word yes. But not everybody deploys the same tactics or strategies.
For instance, Trenton, N.J.-based TerraCycle, which began in 2001 as a company that packaged organic fertilizer in used soda bottles, sets a green example by partnering with major brands globally to repurpose hard-to-recycle items.
“Our target audience is consumers,” Rick Zultner, the company’s process engineering manager, tells Waste360 in an interview. “We’re trying to make a big push on the social component so people understand our environment and that materials that can be recycled should be. Our goal is better consumer education and engagement.”
By offering rewards to families, schools and other organizations, TerraCycle collects about 3 percent of the U.S. drink pouches. Those are mixed with other similar waste—snack bags, baby food and detergent pouches, and candy bar and granola bar wrappers—then shredded, washed and transformed into plastic pellets. It takes nearly 4,000 pouches to create a large park bench.
Novelis, the world’s largest aluminum recycler, opted to stop providing feedstock the industry that creates converter foil, that very thin layer of aluminum in mixed-material box packaging.
“We’re gradually withdrawing because it doesn’t fit into our business strategy or our way of thinking,” says John Gardner, the company’s chief sustainability officer based in Atlanta. “We took a hard look at our product portfolio and decided to focus on making products that are easily recycled and that can incorporate recycled materials. We want to focus on what actually is recycled, not what can be recycled in theory.”
That streamlining prompted Novelis to sell off three European aluminum foil and packaging plants in the summer of 2012.
On the West Coast, As You Sow prods the flexible packaging industry by buying shares in publicly traded companies and then forcing progress via shareholder resolutions.
“This is our mode of social change,” says Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of As You Sow. “As owners, we can get access to senior management. Engaging company ownership is a powerful tool.”
For example, the Oakland-based nonprofit has convinced Colgate-Palmolive to make its packaging for three of four product categories—all but toothpaste—completely recyclable by 2020. Likewise, Procter & Gamble has agreed that 90 percent of its packaging will be recyclable by 2020.
As You Sow is pressuring Kraft Foods Group, manufacturer of the ubiquitous Capri Sun juice pouches, to switch its packaging from a foil/plastic laminate to readily available recyclable plastic, glass, paper or aluminum. MacKerron points out that Honest Kids juice drinks soon will be dispensed in recyclable aseptic cartons.
“There has been an explosion of flexible packaging, and we can see why companies are charging down that road,” MacKerron says. “But these materials have enormous value and we’re wasting them. Why would you throw aluminum away?”
When it comes to market material share, flexible packaging (19 percent) is second only to corrugated cardboard (23 percent), according to 2012 statistics As You Sow compiled in a joint report with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Solid waste issues shouldn’t be relegated to second-tier status because they can be linked to front-burner concerns such as global warming, MacKerron says.
Companies that introduce packaging that doesn’t synch with existing recycling systems, he continues, should be tasked with creating a market that gives MRFs a reuse outlet.
“Like any business decision, it comes down to economics,” says Zultner, emphasizing that TerraCycle is subsidized to recycle flexible packaging and other orphan products.
Change starts with awareness of a problem, he says. The value of recyclable flexible packaging will be recognized only if stewardship-minded forces—consumers, legislators or corporations—put a price on it.
In the meantime, TerraCycle spokesman Albe Zakes is aware that 97 percent of this country’s juice pouches are not being recycled.
But think about this, he says. It took four decades to reach a 30 percent recycling rate with No. 1 and 2 plastics.
“With flexible packaging,” Zakes says, “we very much recognize that there’s a long, long, long, long, long way to go.”