What is PCR?
Used packaging does not always get a second chance at life. For those lucky containers that do get a sequel, however, they are recycled into a material called “PCR” and used to make new plastic products. If you are in the market for recycled packaging, you may be asking, “What is PCR?” The answer to that question, along with an in-depth introduction to this special material, can be found in the article that follows.
What is PCR?
PCR is an acronym for “Post-Consumer Resin,” and “Post-Consumer Resin” is exactly what it sounds like: it’s plastic (resin) that has been recycled after (post) customer use (consumer). Available in three resin varieties, PCR options include PET, HDPE, and PP, all of which are popular options for product packaging. Many consumer-facing brands have started using more PCR packaging to appeal to an eco-conscious customer base and adhere to the sustainability requirements of certain states. With rising popularity, recycled plastic packaging is becoming more commonly used now than ever before, and it could become an important part of your brand’s packaging strategy in the near future. Read on to learn about PCR’s creation, strength, colors, and price, and find out how to make PCR work for you.
To produce the resin pellets for PCR container manufacturing, recyclers first collect a slew of recyclable plastic items, including old bottles, bags, cups, trays, and other plastic products that can be melted down and reused. The plastics used for PCR production can be sourced from anywhere, most commonly coming from national resin recycling programs and companies who specialize in the collection of ocean-bound plastics. Recycled plastics refer to any plastic that has gone through a recycling system, while ocean-bound plastic refers specifically to plastic waste that has been collected from around waterways and would likely end up in the ocean if not properly managed. In either case, the collected plastic recyclables are sorted and sent to recycling centers that specialize in the refinement of recyclable goods into raw materials.
At the recycling center, the sorted resins are separated by plastic-type (PET, HDPE, or PP), cleaned thoroughly, and processed. The most common way to process recycled plastic is to have it ground down and melted into small pellets. These pellets of raw resin are then used to create new plastic products and containers. Another way recyclers process plastics, called chemical recycling, involves exposing the resins to specific chemicals and temperatures in order to break them down into reusable raw components. While effective, chemical recycling is much more expensive than traditional plastic recycling, making it a less appealing option for many. When processing recycled plastic, the manufacturer’s objective is to limit contaminants that will impact the color, strength, and quality of the finished product. Contaminated or unusable plastics are removed and designated for use in other less particular recycling programs, while only the approved resin pellets are passed down the supply chain to be used in PCR packaging production.
Quality and Strength
Depending on the quality of the finished recycled pellets and the process used to create them, the resulting PCR will either be considered food contact approved by the FDA or it will be approved for non-food-related uses. When purchasing PCR packaging, a buyer should always ensure that the material’s food safety is in alignment with the precut needs and industry requirements.
Whether it is approved for food contact or not, the structural quality of PCR is not affected either way. In fact, PCR’s structural integrity is often the same as that found in virgin resin (i.e., original plastics that have not been recycled yet). In other words, recycled PET, HDPE, and PP containers will almost always retain the same strength, flexibility, and/ or rigidity of their non-recycled counterparts. That said, containers made out of PCR might not always look exactly the same as those made from virgin resin.
Colors and Options
Clear, natural, and white containers made from PCR tend to be lightly tinted with a gray/ yellow hue. This is simply due to the recycled nature of the plastic and is not directly related to the quality or food safety of the container itself. However, for anyone out there who is deterred from using PCR packaging due to its unique color, fear not, for there are ways to minimize and cover up the plastic’s discoloration.
The distinct gray/ yellow tint of PCR plastic is most prevalent in containers that are made from 100% recycled materials, so when less recycled material is used, containers are less tinted. Mixing recycled plastic with virgin resin will result in a brighter and cleaner final product, though it likely will not illuminate the gray/ yellow tint completely. For example, a clear PCR container made from 50% recycled material will look less discolored than a 100% recycled clear PCR container, but a slight tint will still be noticeable. When working with packaging that is made from a mix of recycled and virgin resin, keep in mind that the exact percentage of PCR used can be strongly impacted by manufacturing minimums and availability, industry standards for your product, or government regulations. In California, for instance, many plastic bottles need to contain at least 20% PCR. Despite these factors, using a resin mix that is not 100% recycled material can be an effective way to minimize the natural discolored look of PCR packaging.
An even better way to get rid of the gray/ yellow hue of PCR is to use darker colors, such as amber, blue, black, or green when designing product packaging. This is preferable to the method mentioned above because, in many cases, colored PCR is indistinguishable from colored virgin resin. This solution provides the benefit of using 100% recycled plastic containers without the potential challenges that come with using recycled-looking containers. In our experience, this option is preferred by customers and product designers alike.
Then again, just letting the natural gray/ yellow color of the recycled plastic shine through can be a great option too! With growing customer interest and demand for recycled products, offering up something that actually looks like it was recycled can be an effective way to capture the attention of the environmentally-conscious customer demographic. In addition, when packaging is perceived to be more “sustainable”, it sells better. Studies indicate that between 62% to 74% of consumers are more interested in purchasing sustainably packaged products than traditionally packaged ones. 83% say that a company’s use of recycle-friendly product design is important. For these customers, keeping the slightly discolored look of 100% PCR can help them quickly and easily identify your product/ brand as a sustainable choice.
While PCR color options are rather predictable, the price for recycled plastics, on the other hand, can be somewhat volatile and cyclical in nature. There is a common expression that states, “The only constant in life is change,” and that saying feels especially relevant when considering the cost of sustainable packaging. PCR, like many commodities, varies in price depending on supply and demand. However, unlike most other commodities, PCR production and availability are dependent on the recycling behaviors and habits of consumers. In addition, plastic recyclers also experience many of the same freight and supply chain interruptions and obstacles that non-recycling manufacturers face. Put together, these variables can make it a challenge to provide consistent pricing for PCR packaging. That said, on average, the price to package products using PCR tends to be a bit higher than if virgin resins were used.
Worried? You might not need to be. According to this Global Corporate Sustainability Report, most customers (about 66%) are willing to pay more for products that come from sustainable and environmentally friendly brands. Still, it is important to consider the potential financial impacts that using PCR packaging can have on your product and customers. If you have a broad customer base or if you operate in a niche that appeals to sustainably-minded buyers, a slight increase in product cost for PCR packaging might be a great move!
PCR is a great advancement in packaging, and we are glad to see it grow in popularity! As certain states enact regulations on disposable packaging and as more customers work to limit their carbon footprint, this could be a good time to incorporate PCR packaging into your product line. Now that you have learned about PCR’s creation, strength, colors, and price, do you think it is a good fit for you? If you have questions or concerns about the quality or color of PCR packaging, or if you just want to learn more, we invite you to give us a call. We will be happy to discuss options and possibly provide some samples so that you can take the next step in your packaging journey with confidence.