'Shades of grey or yellow, are not a solution': making recycled plastics attractive

This article was originally published on as part of the series ‘Sustainability Unwrapped’ sponsored by Henkel.

Sustainability 27 Jan 2020
Pril plastic bottles

By Duncan Jefferies

Cutting-edge packaging innovations are helping to reduce waste plastic and ensure it remains part of the supply chain

Plastic packaging has many amazing qualities. It keeps our food fresh and holds liquids without going soggy. lt can also be moulded into a variety of shapes and, unlike glass, it doesn't shatter if you drop it. But one of the qualities that makes it so useful - its durability - also means that it takes approximately 450 years to biodegrade.

It's therefore imperative that we reuse, redesign and recycle plastic packaging so that it doesn't end up buried in landfill or clogging up our oceans for centuries to come. But given that only about 14% of plastic packaging gets recycled today, there's dearly a lot of work still to do - especially when it comes to creating packaging designs that are easier to recycle, use less material and contain more recycled plastic.

One of the biggest barriers to better designs is the higher cost and more constrained supply of recycled plastic compared with virgin types. So, from April 2022, the UK government plans to introduce a new tax on plastic packaging that does not contain a minimum of30% recycled content. It hopes this will transform the economics of sustainable packaging by driving up demand for recycled materials and discouraging the production of single-use packaging with no recycled content.

The EU also wants to make all plastic packaging across Europe recyclable or reusable by 2030, and is allocating an additional €100m on top of current spending to research better designs, durability and recyclability. Initiatives such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and the New Plastics Economy, which aim to build momentum towards a plastics system based on circular economy principles, have also brought together stakeholders from across the plastics value chain to rethink the way plastics are designed, produced, used, recycled and reprocessed.

Shining a light on black plastic

Black plastic, which is often used to package ready meals, is high on the list of packaging that needs redesigning. The near-infrared technology found in plastic sorting facilities uses light reflection to identify different types of plastic and sort them appropriately. But due to the presence of carbon black, those ready meal trays and other types of black plastic simply absorb the light rather than reflecting it back to the machine, effectively rendering them unrecyclable.

Henkel, the global chemical and consumer goods company behind well-known brands such as Loctite, Pritt., Sellotape and Schwarzkopf, Dylan and Colour Catcher, decided to tackle the black plastic problem in partnership with its colouring supplier, Ampacet. Together they developed a black plastic that uses an alternative carbon-free black colour, which can be detected by sorting machines. "We have already begun integrating it into our product portfolios, starting with our bottles of toilet-cleaning products;' says Dr Thorsten Leopold, head of international packaging development for home care products at Henkel. In time the carbon-free colour should be rolled out across all the company's black plastic packaging, which will ensure this formerly "unrecyclable" plastic doesn't become waste.

The project is part of Henkel's goal of making 100% of its consumer packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025, while also increasing the share of recycled plastic in its European consumer goods products to 35%. In order to meet these targets. Henkel's packaging developers follow three main principles: prevent, reduce and reuse. This means producing less packaging and waste, developing better packaging and enabling a circular economy. For example, the company's Laundry and Home Care and Beauty Care businesses have recently launched packaging made solely from recycled plastic - up to half of which is also classed as Social Plastic.

Plastic that alleviates poverty

This Social Plastic comes from Henkel's partnership with Plastic Bank, a social enterprise that aims to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment while helping to alleviate poverty in countries such as Haiti and the Philippines. It encourages people to collect plastic waste and bring it to Plastic Bank recycling collection centres, where it can be exchanged for money, goods or services. The Social Plastic is then integrated back into the plastic supply chain. In total. approximately 200 tonnes of collected Social Plastic will be processed for Henkel this year.

Pierre Defaix, global purchasing category lead for plastic resins and masterbatches at Henkel, says that part of the appeal of the partnership is the proven scalability of Plastic Bank's solution for tackling ocean plastic. "Its business model tackles the environmental challenge of ocean plastic," he adds, "but it also has a social dimension that addresses poverty and the lack of work opportunities for many people ... We want to create the demand that will help this business model fly."

As well as using more Social Plastic in future, Henkel is also exploring other ways of improving the lives of plastic collectors. "Early this year, for instance, Schwarzkopf included four Plastic Bank collectors in its Million Chances charitable initiative, which supports projects that empower women to build a successful personal and professional future.

"This is in the Philippines, where Schwarzkopf teaches disadvantaged young people hairdressing skills so they can change their Jives by developing a steady income.” says Defaix.

Recycled plastic challenges

Several issues have to be taken into consideration when incorporating more recycled plastic into product packaging. For instance, the properties of recycled plastic - such as its colour and odour - are more varied than those of virgin plastic. "This is something of a challenge for our supply chain, but also for the performance of our products," says Leopold.

Certain colours of recycled polyolefin plastics, for instance, are hard to source in large amounts. Recycled PET plastic also tends to be less transparent than a virgin equivalent, and may have a greyish or yellowish tinge. That poses a challenge when it comes to creating beauty products with shelf appeal. "Obviously there's a huge demand from our marketeers, and also from the consumers themselves, that the product, in terms of packaging, needs to be attractive;' says Philippe Blank, head of innovation and sustainability for Henkel Beauty Care. "It's not a solution to end up with beauty packaging that only comes in shades of grey or yellow."

In some cases, designers might add a coloured tint to recycled PET to hide the fact that it's not as transparent as the virgin kind. Sleeves that completely cover the bottle are another option. "That means you can put a lot of recycled plastic into the body:' says Leopold, "and the greyish or yellow colour of the bottle is covered by the sleeve. That's a nice example of how smart design can foster the use of recycled plastic:'

Philippe Blank
Philippe Blank

©Philippe Blank


Philippe Blank

Smarter multi-layer design

Smart design is also part of Henkel's approach to making multi-layer packaging more sustainable. This type of packaging, which consists of multiple layers of film, foil, plastic or paper, is tear-resistant, lightweight and good at keeping out external factors. However, the layers are difficult to separate during the recycling process, so the packaging is often incinerated or thrown into landfill sites after use.

The padded mailers that protect e-commerce purchase during transit fall under this category of packaging. Around 20bn of them are used each year, which adds up to a heavy environmental footprint - one that Henkel engineers have helped to make a bit lighter by designing a new type of recyclable mailer. "The product that we came up with can be put straight into the paper recycling bin;' says Marcin Lapaj, global business development manager for the circular economy at Henkel. "It shows how a traditional product can be reinvented and made in a different way, with circularity as priority number one.'

Of course, Henkel isn't the only company that's trying to make plastic packaging more sustainable. In the UK, Coca-Cola bas developed new technologies that mean 100% of the packaging the company uses in its "Smartwater" bottles is now recyclable. Samsung, meanwhile, has substituted all the plastic packaging used for its products for environmentally sustainable materials such as recycled and bio-based plastics and paper. And where these companies lead others will hopefully follow, so that plastic waste becomes part of the past rather than the future.