Consumer Goods Giants Still Have a Long Way to Go for Using Recyclate
3/26/2024 Retail Brands Industry Look into Europe Article

Consumer Goods Giants Still Have a Long Way to Go for Using Recyclate

The pressure on consumer goods companies to make packaging more sustainable is high. The use of recycled plastic is progressing more slowly than expected by politicians, investors, and customers. A dilemma: the demand for recyclates is higher than the supply.

Perwoll bottles in different colors. All Perwoll bottles in Western Europe have contained 50 percent recycled plastic since the start of 2020.

Consumer goods companies have set themselves ambitious targets to use less packaging material and more sustainable materials. The pressure from the EU, but also from investors and customers, is growing. By the end of 2025, the companies Henkel, Beiersdorf, and Unilever want to increase the proportion of recycled plastic in their packaging to 25 to 30 percent. However, they have only made slow progress so far, reports the Lebensmittelzeitung. In 2023, the proportion of recyclate in plastic packaging at Beiersdorf was only 12 percent. To achieve the target of 30 percent, the company will have to use more than twice as much recycled material by the end of next year. Nevertheless, the Group is on schedule.

One reason for the slow progress is another important goal: packaging should be lighter and contain less material. The company focused on this first. “In general, converting our packaging to recycled material is by no means easy”, says Beiersdorf. “There is still a shortage of high-quality recyclate on the market.” In order to guarantee the safety of the products, the Group tests the purchased material very extensively for its safety.

Little Material

Recyclate is the material of choice. However, the costs involved are a major hurdle. “The prices for high qualities have gone through the roof in recent years”, says Henning Wilts, who heads the Circular Economy Department at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy. “Recycled plastic is on average 30 to 50 percent more expensive than virgin material. On the one hand, we have a huge increase in demand, and on the other, a recycling industry that has invested too little.” In order to increase supply, Wilts proposes a mandatory minimum quota. Jochen Neubauer takes a similar view. The packaging engineer is researching new ways of producing recycled plastic at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging. “There must be a political and financial intent. As long as there are no legal requirements, the use of recyclate will not increase significantly.”

Neubauer has co-developed a process in which different plastics are separated from each other using solvents and can then be recycled. Until now, a lot of packaging has been difficult to recycle because it consists of different materials that cannot be easily separated from each other. The process works well, but the recycled material looks greenish. The Fraunhofer Institute is currently working on the first commercial plant in Germany, but interest from the industry is restrained, Neubauer notes. Aesthetic aspects still play a role when it comes to recyclate, says Sven Sängerlaub, Professor of Packaging Technology at Munich University of Applied Sciences.

The use of recycled plastic is primarily a financial issue. “We invest a lot in sustainable packaging. Recycled material is significantly more expensive than new material”, says Carsten Bertram, who is responsible for sustainable packaging development in the consumer goods business at Henkel, in an interview with LZ. There are also investments in the production facilities. The company wants to use 30 percent recycled material by the end of next year. Last year, the proportion was 19 percent. Until then, progress had only been made in small steps. Now, important projects are to ensure the decisive leap – for example with the largest brand Persil. The packaging, which now consists of 50 percent recycled plastic throughout Europe, will soon be launched on the market.

Unilever has also only increased the proportion of recycled material in small steps in recent years. By the end of 2025, the proportion of recycled plastic should be 25 percent. In 2021 it was 18 percent, last year, it was 22 percent. Nevertheless, Unilever is confident that it will achieve this target. However, the company has different requirements as it generates a significant proportion of its turnover with food. This makes it more difficult to increase the overall proportion of recyclate.