Rethinking plastic packaging and recycling

10:09 AM | September 8, 2020 | Francinia Protti-Alvarez

Magnum's pint tubs are made using certified circular PP 
from Sabic's TruCircle portfolio. Photo: Sabic.

When it comes to food and drink applications, recycled plastic has limited uses. Regulations forbid the use of post-consumer resin (PCR) in food and drink contact, as well as in hygiene and medical applications. However, brand owner Unilever and its partner Sabic have developed a solution and introduced it to some European markets. Their goal is to prove that PCR can be transformed for safe use in food-contact applications.

"[Unilever and Sabic] thought it vital to move fast in bringing this type of solution to the market. Because it helps consumers and regulators become aware of what is currently possible when it comes to plastic recycling technology," Mark Vester, circular economy leader at Sabic, told CW during a recent telephone interview.

In early 2019, Unilever got together with Sabic to discuss a new packaging concept for one of Unilever's Magnum ice cream tubs. In just over nine months, the collaboration went from concept to market with a packaging solution made from recycled polypropylene (rPP).

"Thanks to this partnership, we are now providing a sustainable product that does not compromise on the functionality or experience that the consumer is expecting, which is critical," Sanjeev Das, global packaging director/foods and beverages at Unilever, told CW during the same call. "[As a brand owner], when you have a product in the market, you cannot just change materials that go into its manufacturing and packaging."

Certified circular PP from Sabic's TruCircle portfolio is used to make the tubs. Products in the range include certified circular polymers from the chemical recycling of used, mixed plastics; certified renewable polymers from biobased feedstock; and mechanically recycled polymers.

"One of the advantages of chemical recycling is that you can produce the materials with the same properties as if they came from naphtha, suitable for existing applications. That saves a lot of time at the development phase," says Vester, explaining how it was possible to move so quickly from concept to market.

"Many of our partners are looking at conventional mechanic recycling, but one of the main recommendations that we have for supplier partners is to focus on chemical recycling to feedstocks," Das adds.

What began with the launch in 2019 of 600,000 ice cream tubs in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain continued in 2020. More than 7 million Magnum ice cream tubs will be introduced across other European countries. By the end of 2020, all Magnum pint tubs in Europe will be produced with rPP, equivalent to more than 160,000 kilograms of recycled plastic, according to Unilever.

The company anticipates that the new packs will be rolled out globally from 2021, with the goal that all Magnum tubs will be made with recycled plastics by 2025.

Plastic packaging is often used only once before it is discarded. This means that about 95% of the value of plastic packaging materials, equating to $80–120 billion per year, is lost to the economy, according to a recent Ellen McArthur Foundation report.

The Unilever-Sabic collaboration is just one of many solutions aiming to reroute plastic packaging away from waste streams and into the materials loop, reclaiming some of the billions of dollars that are otherwise discarded annually.

Learn more about sustainability and circularity initiatives in the plastic value chain during the Global Plastic Summit 2020, Online 21–23 October.