Insights, Dispensed

Reconciling the Impact of China’s National Sword Initiative Through PCR

Sustainability goals have become increasingly important for consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies, particularly over the past decade as environmentally minded millennials have exerted more buying power. How products are designed and manufactured are among the biggest ways companies are looking to reduce their carbon footprint.

One of the biggest areas for sustainability gains is plastic – understandably so. Approximately 34.5 million tons of plastic was produced in the United States alone in 2015, according to the EPA. While other materials like glass or paper have a smaller carbon footprint, plastic has a number of inherent benefits that brands and consumers prefer.

Efforts to make plastic packaging more environmentally friendly not only help brands achieve their sustainability goals, they help support a base of customers who are demanding these changes – with an increasingly louder voice. Nearly 4 in 10 millennials check packaging labels for sustainability. What’s more, over half of consumers are willing to pay more for products that use sustainable packaging.

As such, companies routinely pledge to make more and more of their plastic-based packaging recyclable. However, recent events have thrown this strategy into question.

Changes in the global market

The recycling industry operates on the global market, so a key player enacting more stringent regulations or bans will have repercussions felt across the world. This was seen most recently with China’s National Sword Initiative, which heavily restricted the type of materials the country would accept to be recycled, especially plastic.

For years, China imported much of the world’s waste to be recycled. Since this went into effect last year, businesses and governments alike have had to re-evaluate their recycling efforts. Not that plastic products can’t be recycled, it’s simply that the avenues to do so are logistically and cost prohibitive. So, how do businesses continue to make strides toward their sustainability goals in light of these restrictions?

One of the most promising options to emerge is post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic. Made from previously used plastic that would otherwise end up in landfill, PCR offers brands an innovative way to meet this growing consumer need, while also helping achieve their own sustainability goals.

As a result, more and more CPG businesses are setting manufacturing and product development goals around PCR use. Proctor and Gamble has stated it’ll use more than 8 million tons of PCR in its bottles. Pepsi’s Naked Juice line uses 100% PCR for its containers. Even more niche brands in the personal care space are starting to manufacture packaging entirely from PCR.

What’s particularly interesting about this is that PCR does have some limitations compared to virgin plastic – particularly around color specificity. Bright, brand-specific colors have been a non-negotiable in the CPG space for decades – any deviation from this was heresy in the eyes of brand managers. And while color adherence is still a priority, companies are beginning to recognize that it’s okay to relent on this – to some degree at least – for the sake of sustainability. As noted earlier, more and more consumers are checking to see if a product’s packaging is sustainable.

While China’s National Sword Initiative has had far-reaching effects on the global recycling market, it certainly hasn’t doomed the future of recyclable plastic. Since the policy went into effect, other nationalities and businesses have started developing and augmenting recycling technologies, infrastructures and capabilities. This progress, coupled with the rise in use of recycled materials from the likes of the aforementioned CPG brands, points to an assured rebound of the recycling market, furthering our journey to a truly circular economy.

Our PCR portfolio of dispensers, fine mist sprayers, trigger sprayers and closures use up to 98 percent PCR while meeting the same stringent requirements for performance as non-PCR options, allowing you to build your sustainability story and drive deeper engagement with your customers.