In 2009, a BBMG ‘Conscious Consumer Report’ stated that 67% of US consumers agreed that ‘even in tough times it’s important to buy products with social and environmental benefits’. Since then, customers have only continued to become more attuned to the benefits of environmentally friendly packaging, with global industry analysts (GIA) declaring that greater consumer awareness will help drive the global market for sustainable packaging to $142.4bn by 2015.

According to Katherine O’Dea, senior fellow at GreenBlue, a non-profit organisation that equips businesses with the science and resources to make products more sustainable, this is particularly pronounced in the personal care industry.

"Packaging is part of the brand, so if companies can demonstrate social responsibility and concern for human health and the environment in their packaging, it’s a great way for them to distinguish themselves," she explains.

The use of post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials is one of the most popular ways for personal care brands to demonstrate their commitment to the environment.

Improving understanding

Although personal care brands are wholeheartedly embracing the idea of using PCR content, there remains a distinct lack of understanding across the industry about the ins and outs of integrating these materials into packaging.

"Companies want to push more and more for recycled content in their packaging, but they may not necessarily understand what’s involved in the process," O’Dea remarks.

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"Recycled materials on their own don’t cost more than virgin ones, but when it comes to processing, we end up having to pay more."

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition, an industry working group dedicated to developing and implementing sustainable packaging solutions, has, therefore, developed a report entitled ‘Guidelines for Post-Consumer Recycled Content in Plastic Packaging’, which offers practical guidance on the use of recycled content in 27 packaging applications.

"The intent of the report was to create pragmatic guidelines to help retail buyers better communicate with their packaging suppliers and make requests in a way that can actually be achieved," says O’Dea.

The challenges and how to overcome them

According to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s guidelines, the main challenges faced when trying to use PCR materials are a lack of material collection and sorting infrastructure; a lack of, or limited, material markets; international market competition from existing recovered materials; direct food and drug contact requirements compliance; critical performance requirements such as material strength and environmental (UV light, moisture) barriers.

For O’Dea, it is the final point that is the most important. "It’s really about performance," she says. "The first job of the packaging is to protect the product; if it fails to do that, then not only have you lost the packaging, you’ve lost the embedded resources in the product and any benefit you could have gained from using recycled content."

Brand owners must, therefore, carefully consider the properties of recycled materials. "When you use plastics, you’re using mainly high-density polyethylene that comes from milk bottles, or PET from beverage bottles," says John Delfausse of Estée Lauder Companies, which uses 100% PCR plastic content in its promotional bottles and is acclaimed across the industry for its environmental credentials. "Compared with a virgin material, it has gone through several heat cycles and has been remanufactured for reuse so you end up having issues with the clarity of the material and the colour."

There are several potential solutions to this: moving from transparent plastics to opaque colourations to allow for increased recycled content; where colour is a fundamental element of the corporate brand, recycled content could be used in a middle layer, assuming the packaging application requires multilayer construction; or, when a packaging application requires a clear or transparent appearance, recycled content may need to be limited to 25-30% of the total content.

It is also essential to remember that personal care packaging needs to provide critical environmental barriers such as oxygen, moisture and UV light protection. Although these characteristics are not inherent even in virgin plastics, the physical properties of mechanically recycled PCR materials are lower than the virgin form of the materials because the polymer chains have been broken.

Many techniques can address the degradation of physical properties in recovered plastics, including blending of various resin grades, resin compounding, or the introduction of performance additives such as anti-oxidants, colourants, fillers or impact modifiers. Nonetheless, it is important to pay careful attention to the sourcing of recycled materials.

"What we try to do when we source these materials is make sure we know where we’re getting them from, and to set up specifications against the recycled materials and make sure they’re free from any kind of contamination," says Delfausse.

Yet, even with its stringent sourcing specifications, Estée Lauder Companies has faced a number of processing challenges. "Recycled materials on their own don’t cost more than virgin materials," Delfausse notes. "But when it comes to processing, we end up having to pay more."

Estée Lauder Companies overcame this problem by introducing new machinery, but the company certainly learnt its lessons on using PCR content the hard way.

"It was a learning process," Delfausse confirms. "But anything we’ve learnt and can share with the industry will help others to avoid going through this process. The guidelines are a valuable tool for those struggling to get into using recycled materials."

Recycling from the ground up

One of the issues the industry faces is the lack of recycled material. Indeed, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), only 27% of PET bottles manufactured are recycled.

"It isn’t possible for all products to use 100% recycled content, because the volume of material isn’t there," O’Dea explains.

"Part of this is due to the lack of recycling infrastructure; we don’t collect enough materials. This is one of the reasons that, on average, personal care companies use only 25-30% recycled materials."

Estée Lauder Companies has launched initiatives including the ‘Return to Origins Recycling’ and the ‘Recycle Caps with Aveda’ programmes in an attempt to create more sustainable and effective closed-loop systems. With Return to Origins, the brand accepts all empty cosmetic tubes, bottles and jars, regardless of who manufactured them, which are then sent to a recycling centre to be used either for energy recovery or recycled into new materials, while the Recycle Caps with Aveda programme involves collecting plastic bottle caps, and sending them to a plastics recycler to be ground and moulded into new plastic caps.

"We’re always trying to improve what we’re doing and look at renewable materials," Delfausse concludes.

Many personal care companies are following the beauty giant’s lead in an effort to communicate directly with their environmentally conscious consumers, and, although it won’t be an easy road, Estée Lauder Companies has clearly demonstrated that there’s no reason why the personal care packaging industry can’t look forward to creating a sustainable, closed-loop system in the not-too-distant future.