Big things for small packages: Working to capture tiny recyclables

Big things for small packages: Working to capture tiny recyclables

Small-format plastic packaging holds value but can’t be properly recycled via conventional residential systems. Representatives from Estée Lauder, Ulta, MIT and more discuss potential solutions.

Two people sit in white chairs on a stage with a green background that says "Packaging Recycling Summit."

Small things can make a big impact — and not always in the best ways. Small-format recyclable plastic packaging is one example, because it’s challenging to process at MRFs even if it’s collected, according to speakers at the Packaging Recycling Summit in Atlanta this month.

Small-format recyclables come in a variety of forms, including cosmetics, hotel miniature amenities, miniature alcohol bottles, pharmaceuticals and lids or caps. They have value when processed, but they’re too tiny to be captured in most conventional curbside recycling streams, speakers said.

Up to 10% of plastic packaging is small-format by weight, and an estimated 25% to 40% of plastic packaging is small-format based on the sheer number of items, said Jennifer Park, director of engagement at The Sustainability Consortium, citing a study in the U.K. by the Waste and Resources Action Programme.

She cautioned that “there isn’t a lot of data on small-format, especially within the U.S.” The Sustainability Consortium therefore put together a series of characterization studies that attempt to quantify volumes and distribution of these packaging types to determine a value proposition for capturing them.

The results mirrored the U.K. study’s percentages, suggesting small-format plastic packaging comprises “a significant amount of material,” Park said, and it typically doesn’t get captured for recycling. She said the group found that consumers put 75% of their small-format plastic packaging in the trash and “25% was being incorrectly put in the recycling bin — we know that it’s not recyclable today.”

Complications with capturing
Generally speaking, recyclers cite the “two-inch rule” for capturing materials in curbside recycling streams: “If material is two inches or smaller, it’s likely going to be sorted out” at a MRF, said Joy Rifkin, sustainability manager at Illinois-based recycler LRS. She offered advice to brands, packaging designers and manufacturers: “If you can make an item over two inches all the way around, that gives it the best shot at being recycled.”

Rifkin also touted the “caps on” messaging that industry is disseminating to consumers for bottle recycling, specifically stemming from detached caps getting lost during collection. The education initiative contradicts what many consumers previously learned about curbside recycling, but the new message is catching on. The Association of Plastic Recyclers champions an educational campaign describing the reasoning: The industry previously couldn’t effectively recycle bottles with caps on, but technological improvements have made the process possible and preferable to capture every bit of valuable material.



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