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Single-use sustainability

How recyclable plastics can help protect human health—and the planet.

Before the pandemic hit in 2020, consumers were walking—if not running—away from single-use plastics. Paper straws, reusable beverage containers, and canvas shopping bags were becoming commonplace. But COVID-19 has reminded us that plastic disposables can still play an important role—especially if they don’t harm the environment. And by working with recyclable materials from partners such as Avery Dennison—a materials science and manufacturing company based in Glendale, Calif.businesses are finding they can enhance public health and be sustainable at the same time.

Pandemic hygiene concerns have changed sensibilities around packaging. For instance, Massachusetts lifted its ban on single-use plastic bags statewide. Food items that used to be sold loose are now individually wrapped. Takeout orders come with new labels vouching for their tamperproof preparation. But where all the extra packaging and plastic labeling comes from—and where it ends up—can determine whether a company keeps progressing toward its environmental goals.

A perfect example is Unilever, which has pledged to halve its reliance on virgin plastic (made from petroleum) by 2025. For it and many other companies, using recycled plastic could make all the difference.

Environmental experts agree. According to the 2019 Plastic & Climate report from the Center for International Environmental Law, recycling “displaces new virgin plastic on the market, making it advantageous from an emissions perspective.”

The key to recycling plastic packaging is twofold. Components must be recyclable, and systems must be in place to put the recycled material back into the manufacturing stream. On both fronts, Avery Dennison is helping to build a plastics economy that’s increasingly circular, meaning materials are reclaimed and petroleum-based production is unnecessary.

“The most important thing is that the packaging does not end up in the landfill,” says Jeroen Diderich, vice president and general manager of Avery Dennison’s label and graphic materials division in North America.

With that goal in mind, Avery Dennison uses components that are easily separated, even at low temperatures. And its environmentally conscious clients count on that. For instance, when Hub Labels applies Avery Dennison’s CleanFlake™ label to its Chlorophyll Water bottles or when Resource Label Group puts a CleanFlake label on a 32-ounce Zing Zang Bloody Mary Mix, it’s easy to recycle.

But to scale up plastics recycling successfully, more infrastructure is also needed. That’s why Avery Dennison is spearheading a consortium of suppliers, customers, and competitors to expand the stream of recycled raw materials and make it easier for brands to choose sustainable products. The company is also investing $5 million in RoadRunner Recycling, a private venture with a pilot project designed to help label makers achieve their zero-waste goals.

“We’re not only focusing on the innovation and providing solutions ourselves, but we’re also reaching out and providing collaboration with other players in the ecosystem,” Diderich says.

As the pandemic continues to change nearly every industry, plastics are proving that they still have a place. It’s just not in the landfill.