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August 23, 2021

Post Consumer vs. Post Industrial Recycled Materials

Britt Martin

Today’s consumers are more conscious than ever about the environmental impact of the products they purchase. Many have traded in their plastic water bottles for reusable ones, opted for sustainable clothing brands over cheaper fast-fashion houses, and canceled their convenient food delivery subscriptions due to excessive packaging waste. 

Consumers have serious buying power, and they have started to vote with their dollars. To serve these markets—and stay ahead of the competition—brands and industry leaders can’t ignore the materials in the products that are used on a daily basis. The more consumers know, the better the global outcome will be.

Today, we’ll dive into the benefits and trade-offs of PCR and PIR, two responsibly produced packaging options that are growing in popularity. 

But first, let’s define the two and outline their different processes. 

PCR (Post-Consumer Recycled)

PCR comes from anything that consumers recycle—from soda cans to plastic bottles to glass. Let’s follow the path of soda cans to outline the process:

  1. Consumers toss their empty soda cans into their recycling bins for collection each week. 
  2. Recycling facilities collect, sort, grind or melt these soda cans down into pallets. 
  3. Pallets are sold to processing plants, which use the recycled materials to make new tin cans. 
  4. The processing plants then sell them to companies that need tin cans.

See the procees unfold in this tour of a recycling plant!

PIR (Post-Industrial Recycled)

As for PIR materials, they come from waste generated during the original packaging manufacturing process.

This is a more closed-loop system where manufacturing facilities collect scraps of a particular product, like tin cans, created during the manufacturing process, melt them down, and then reuses them to make the same product.

Clear benefits of responsibly produced packaging

Photo by Roberto Sorin via Unsplash
  • Virgin plastics can often be recycled and repurposed to create the same product repeatedly. Bottles can be produced with between 10%-100% PCR content. Sometimes these percentages require brands to compromise on clarity and color aesthetic, which most brands don’t mind.  
  • Thermoplastics like PETs can be broken down and reincorporated into new products relatively easily. The carbon footprint of manufacturing 100% PCR Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), like a water bottle, is 60% lower than virgin PET—and that includes all the energy to collect, recycle, and remanufacture the plastic.
  • There are clear economic benefits of recycling. Recycling creates 1.1 million U.S. jobs, $236 billion in gross annual sales, and $37 billion in annual payrolls. Well-run recycling programs cost less to operate than waste collection, landfilling, and incineration. And the more people recycle, the cheaper it becomes.
  • There are also clear environmental benefits of recycling, which diverts hundreds of millions of tons of materials from landfills every year.

Of course, recycled packaging doesn't always guarantee environmental benefits—there are always trade-offs.

Complexities and trade-offs of responsibly produced packaging

  • Most products aren’t designed with recycling top of mind. By recycling, we’re often just delaying the inevitable of returning to non-renewable resources to create more new products.
  • In some cases, plastics can’t be recycled into new bottles without first adding new raw materials because they’re not strong enough. But there are newer, more innovative ways to create new, clear-looking plastic bottles without using virgin materials. 
  • Americans recycle about 66M tons of material annually, one-third of which is exported for processing. Dependence on foreign countries can lead to instability and increased waste when trade policies shift, like in 2018 when China stopped accepting much of America's recycling.
  • Every city has a different recycling infrastructure and different guidelines for what is and isn't recyclable. This range makes it confusing for consumers to know what they can and can't recycle. Ultimately, a lot of consumers toss items into recycling that disrupt or ruin the sorting process.

While everyone can help drive change by choosing to shop with brands that are using recycled packaging, the power really falls on industry leaders to make more PCR and PIR packaging available for brands to sell and consumers to buy. The bottom line: responsibly produced packaging can reduce energy consumption and promote environmental health.

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