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The use of recycled materials

A report on the challenges faced by brand owners and manufacturers wishing to incorporate recycled materials in their new products.

Image © Imgorthand | iStockphoto.com

As a way to make products more sustainable and reduce their environmental footprint, fully-recycled materials or those containing some recycled content are increasingly being used in the manufacture of a huge array of different items. Particularly for any item made from plastic, there is likely to be an option available on the market containing at least some recycled content. The two main benefits of utilising recycled materials are that they eliminate waste and reduce the use of virgin materials. However, there are also challenges that need to be considered, which will be discussed in this article.

What is a recycled material?

A ‘recycled’ material is one that has been reprocessed from reclaimed material through a manufacturing process and made into a final product, a material or a component for incorporation into another product. According to BS EN ISO 14021:2016, recycled materials fall into one of two categories – those made from i) pre-consumer waste (any material diverted from the waste stream during manufacturing – for example, cutting waste), or ii) post-consumer waste generated by households or businesses that can no longer be used for its intended purpose, such as plastic bottles that are no longer needed.

It is interesting to note what cannot be classed as ‘recycled’. Rework, regrind or scrap generated in a particular process that can be reclaimed within the same process which produced it cannot be called ‘recycled’. This would include, for instance, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), thermoplastic rubber (TR) or thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) sprue and flash from the moulding process that could be ground up or cut up and put back into the same moulding process.

Examples of typical recycled materials

In recent years, a huge number of recycled materials and components have been launched across almost every industry. Recycled plastic waste from sources such as used plastic bottles and recovered ocean plastic has found its way into everything from clothing and shoes to toys and office furniture. It is also common practice for most paper or card packaging items to be at least partially made from recycled materials.

Legislation

Legislation for labelling the materials used in different items and their composition will vary from industry to industry, although generally there seems to be little in the way of legislative guidance specifically relating to how the use of recycled content should be communicated. However, a tightening of legislation is being seen around the world to ensure that any sustainability-related claims being made on goods marketed to consumers are credible and stand up to scrutiny. For instance, the US ‘Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims’ (16 CFR 260), the UK’s ‘Green Claims Code’ and equivalents in other countries provide guidance about what can or cannot be claimed about a particular product in any supporting documentation or marketing materials, and the European Union is expected to launch its own Green Claims Initiative later in 2022.

SATRA recommends the following as key areas for consideration when making claims about the use of recycled materials in any products. What is being referred to must be clearly indicated if stating that a product is made from recycled materials or materials containing recycled content. For example, if one element of a completed product contains 30 per cent of recycled content, it would be misleading to claim that the product itself is made from recycled materials – or even from 30 per cent of recycled materials. It should be obvious in relation to what the claim is being made. Similarly, if an item’s packaging is made from recycled paper, it should be clear if this information is printed on the packaging that it is referring to the packaging only and not the product as a whole.

Verification of recycled materials

There is an increasing desire from companies to be able to verify that the recycled materials incorporated in their products are actually recycled. This gives confidence in the supply chain, adds credibility to any claims being made, is used to avoid any accusations of ‘greenwashing’ (the making of misleading claims about a product or an organisation’s environmental credentials) and can also be used for differentiation within the marketplace.

SATRA is often asked how a material can be verified as recycled. While some tests to differentiate between virgin and recycled polyester are available, testing alone is unlikely to provide conclusive data for the origin of a polyester, and there is no equivalent testing for other materials. The standard route to establish a material’s origins with any certainty is supply chain verification – either independently or via a voluntary standard, such as the various schemes available through the Global Recycled Standard or the Forest Stewardship Council.

These schemes will typically use a chain of custody methodology incorporating document checks to verify and track materials through the supply chain. In some cases, site visits and audits will be used to understand how the waste was generated and to evaluate if the waste percentages are in line with expected industry averages. In addition, steps will be taken to identify the process into which the waste is going, and investigate what processing was undertaken to turn the waste into an input material.

A further option is the relatively new technology of applying molecular tags with a unique identifier to raw materials, for which traceability can be confirmed as the item passes through the supply chain – for instance, tracking recycled polyester through from pellets to fibre to filament and to finished product. It will be interesting to see how this technology develops and to what extent it is adopted in the coming years.

Mikhail Shapovalov | iStockphoto.com

Ground plastic waste prior to reuse

Challenges to be faced

While recycled materials can help to minimise the environmental impact of a product, there are some potential challenges and pitfalls of which a company needs to be aware.

Perhaps the single most important consideration when using recycled materials is to ensure that they are suitable for use in that application and can consistently achieve the same performance requirements as standard materials. The materials utilised – whatever environmental claims are being made – should be safe, appropriate and provide adequate performance, durability and longevity.

Legislation controlling restricted substances in different products is frequently updated. It is therefore vital to ensure that any materials containing recycled content comply with that legislation and that no issues are caused by recycling historical materials containing substances that are no longer permitted, or that are not allowed in the item into which the material is being recycled.

A further consideration is the environmental footprint. In particular, this involves the energy consumed in collecting waste materials, transporting them to a recycling plant (sometimes on the other side of the world) and reprocessing them into new materials. To varying extents, such energy usage will counteract some of the environmental benefits of using recycled materials. The overall footprint that is attributed to a material must be considered, rather than just its recycled credentials.

To have a consistent and reliable supply of recycled materials as a production input, there needs to be a correspondingly consistent and reliable supply of waste going into recycling processes to enable those materials to be manufactured. At times, logistical challenges related to the COVID pandemic hampered the supply chain of this waste. As legislation around the world increasingly restricts or taxes the production of plastic bottles and other single-use plastics, it may become more challenging to secure a supply of certain plastics to recycle into pellets that can, in turn, be used to manufacture materials for a variety of applications, as well as finished products.

VTT Studio | iStockphoto.com

‚Äč Products that include some recycled content could potentially be recycled again

There is also increasing scrutiny being placed on some of the more commonly-used recycled materials, such as polyester – for example, within the EU’s recent communication relating to a strategy for sustainable and circular textiles. The conversion of plastic bottles into textiles can be considered as ‘downcycling’ rather than recycling, as the process used degrades the quality of the polymer. There is also limited ‘fibre-to-fibre’ recycling infrastructure available to recycle the resulting material, and it is extremely difficult to recycle a polyester-based material with available technologies if the polyester has been blended with other types of fibre. It is estimated that globally, less than 1 per cent of textile waste is recycled into new textiles.

Finally, the variability of materials used as an input to the recycling process (for instance, its colour) can, in some cases, lead to differences in the appearance of the new material being produced, which may not be as uniform or consistent as a traditional material. This needs to be understood throughout the supply chain to ensure that the materials are not rejected for aesthetic reasons, even if ­– as internal components – they are not visible in the final product. Such a variation could even be used as a selling point to highlight the ‘environmental credentials’ of the product.

Recycled materials versus recyclability

It is important to note that incorporating recycled materials into a product does not necessarily make the product itself recyclable, and companies choosing to utilise them must be careful to differentiate claims of recycled materials versus recyclability.

Even if individual materials or components used to make an item can be recycled, it may not be possible to recycle the item itself or at least to easily recycle it, and there are a number of things to consider. Firstly, if an item is manufactured from a number of different materials or components that for recycling purposes would need to enter different waste streams, can it realistically be broken down into its constituent parts and does the technology exist to do this?

Simpler items made from just one type of plastic may well be recyclable through typical household recycling schemes. However, they would then need to be marked correctly to ensure that they can be identified easily by the recycling facility, otherwise they may be rejected from that waste stream.

The future

As organisations strive to transition to a circular economy model, finding solutions to convert waste into new materials will become more important. It will also become commonplace for products to be designed for a particular ‘end-of-life’ solution. This may mean reducing the number of different types of materials used, or ensuring that it is easier to disassemble into its constituent parts for either recycling or waste disposal.

Across a number of industries, there is already an increase in the number of companies – either alone or collaboratively – developing their own take-back schemes to reprocess used products. If viable, the item can be refurbished for resale or, as mentioned earlier, broken down to ensure that each material is passed into the most suitable end-of-life solution.

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Please contact eco@satra.com for advice on recycled materials, recyclability credentials of products, and end-of-life solutions.