Plastic food packaging waste is a pervasive problem around the world, particularly in places that do not have effective access to recycling streams — but many businesses are seeking to change that by designing packaging solutions for the circular economy.

In our latest podcast episode, the C.A.P. Pack is joined by a guest host whose experience with plastic recycling brings a fresh perspective to the ways in which the industry is seeking to more effectively recycle and reclaim plastic materials as part of the circular economy.

Sneak Peek for Episode #12

Check out the latest podcast to hear us discuss the latest innovations in the food packaging industry. You can watch or listen on our website or subscribe on Spotify, Apple, or Google. Want a sneak peek? Read on to see some of the topics we cover.

Introducing Guest Host Scott Trenor

Our guest this episode is Scott Trenor, Technical Director at the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR). Scott has more than 15 years of experience in the plastics recycling industry and serves on the APR Design Guide committee, which provides guidelines to improve the recyclability of plastic packaging.

Trying Something New: Games with the C.A.P. Pack!

Episode 12 brings us a brand new segment in the Crazy About Packaging Podcast. Watch our hosts play “Can I Recycle That?”

In the very first round of our new game, Natalie tries to stump our guest star. She shows Scott a regular household packaging material — an empty blueberry package — and asks him to decide whether or not it can be recycled. Scott gives her a rundown of all of the factors that will help decide the answer to the critical question: can she recycle it? Some of these factors include:

  • The packaging material. The package is likely made of PET, which is mechanically recyclable. However, PET is not the only material present on this packaging.
  • The label. Most packaging has some type of label to show you what you’re buying: the brand name, nutritional information, etc. Scott spends some time explaining the regulations in place to ensure that packaging labels don’t interfere with recyclability. “We want that label to be designed with an adhesive that releases off the surface of that thermoform. The PET reclaimer should put it through a number of processes that, if properly designed, will remove the adhesive and the label.”
  • Access to recycling systems. The biggest factor on whether the package can be recycled? Access! As Scott points out, if Natalie doesn’t have access to a program that accepts these materials, she can’t recycle the package even if it was designed for recyclability.

So what’s the verdict — can Natalie recycle her blueberry package? Listen to the podcast to find out!

What Hurdles Stand in the Way of Effective Plastic Recycling?

The packaging industry is making great strides toward a more sustainable future. However, there are still barriers to effective recycling. Natalie brings a shocking statistic: according to the World Economic Forum, plastics were recycled at a rate of 5–6% in 2021. So what’s holding us back?

Scott brings up an interesting point: the statistics that we often hear about the rate of recycling count the production and import of all plastics, whether they are used for food packaging or more long-term solutions like car parts. “So, while we should absolutely be recycling storage totes, car bumpers, yogurt packages, water bottles, everything — it's not necessarily [a fair comparison]. Plastics used in packaging are recycled at a rate closer to 15–20%, which still isn't good, but better. Overall, we’re not great at putting recyclable materials in the right bin. Part of that is due to access, but plastic packaging — for good or bad — isn't that much worse than any other packaging on the market.”

And while the picture might not be as bleak as it is often painted to be, Jonathan does point out that it can still be quite complicated to address. “I think that it's further complicated with maybe some of the problematic materials components that we're also dealing with that make things quite complex, depending on whatever the format is. And each of them has their challenges. So how do we then simplify and improve the systems?”

The Importance of Education and Design in Reducing Food Packaging Waste

So where do we begin? All our hosts agree that it starts with one key piece: education. In fact, Jonathan and Mike point out they’ve been lucky enough to receive some key education from Scott himself — they recently attended a training session that Scott ran, explaining the recycling guidelines put out by the APR.

But education itself isn’t enough. As Mike puts it, “We need to get a really solid understanding of the guidelines so that we can start designing for recycling. Proper design will move the needle faster than anything else I’ve seen out there. There are other things that should be done over time, but if we start with the proper design, we’ve got a much better chance of being successful and raising recycling rates around the country.”

Scott adds that designing for recyclability is truly key, as “It doesn’t matter if everyone in North America has access to recycling, can recycle, and does recycle. If the package isn’t designed for recycling, it’s still going to waste.”

Designing for recyclability is a key part of what the APR does: its design guidelines specifically lay out how to design packaging that can be effectively sorted and reclaimed through the recycling process — including guidelines on labels, ink, and overall packaging design.

What is Circularity in Packaging?

What happens after a material is recycled? As Natalie explains, “We have to consider the market for that material afterwards — after it's collected, reclaimed, and processed. It's got to have somewhere to go, right? I think that  is a really key part of the definition and what takes a material from being recyclable in theory to recyclable in practice. Can we really use it in a circular way? It’s such an important component of recyclability that goes beyond ‘can I throw this in the right bin or not?’ If something isn't designed properly for recycling, or there's no value for that package, then it just increases the cost for everything else that is recycled because it goes through all the same processes.”

So what does circularity look like? Scott explains there are plenty of processes out there that allow us to recapture materials and use them again in the future — most of these efforts focus on sorting, sorting, and more sorting to ensure materials go to the right places. And once again, this goes back to the original design process: when packaging is designed to be recycled in the first place, it’s easier to reclaim and reuse, completing the circle of recycling.

Let’s Talk Food Packaging Waste and Circularity

Interested in the factors that reduce food packaging waste? Want to weigh in on the ways that packaging is reclaimed and reused? Tell us your thoughts — follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram to join the conversation! And be sure to listen and subscribe on Spotify, Apple, Google, or our website.


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