Is Recyclable Canned Beverage Packaging Sustainable Enough?

Sustainability has rightfully become a major concern for beverage companies and their consumers in recent years.

With customers becoming more and more conscious of their impact on the environment, beverage companies that don't take steps to make their product packaging and multipack carriers recyclable — or otherwise environmentally-friendly — risk falling behind.

By understanding the limitations of the U.S. recycling process, the elements of sustainable beverage containers, and what other options exist for can and packaging disposal, you can make an informed decision on how to design a product that is as “green” as possible, which isn’t limited to recyclable products.

Understanding the U.S. Recycling Infrastructure

The United States recycling system can be broken into three major parts: collection, processing and remanufacturing.

The 3 Major Parts of the U.S. Recycling System

Recycling collection methods vary depending on local regulations, the Material Recovery Facility (MRF) that will be handling the materials and what type of material is being handled.

After collection, recyclables are sent to an MRF to be sorted, cleaned and processed into materials that can be remanufactured to produce new goods. Anything that can’t be recycled is either thrown away or sent to a more specialized processing facility.

Key stakeholders in the U.S. recycling process have different priorities when it comes to recycling, but many now aim for a circular economy — one where materials and products are reused rather than thrown away. However, getting there will take significant collaboration.

Challenges and Limitations of the Current Recycling Infrastructure

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018, Americans only recycled or composted about 32% of the waste they generated. This may be attributed to several challenges, including:

  • Lack of recycling education: Recycling can be complicated. Many consumers don’t understand which materials can be recycled, how they should be recycled and where to recycle them. This often leads to recyclables being thrown in the trash or vice versa.

  • Infrastructure unable to handle mixed materials: Packaging composed of mixed materials can be difficult to recycle. For example, many paper-based can carriers have a thin, water-resistant layer of plastic that must be separated from the paper in order to be recycled. These products often end up at recycling centers anyway, slowing down efficiency and damaging machines.

  • Lack of infrastructure to serve domestic markets: The U.S. used to ship recyclables overseas, but in recent years, the main foreign markets for these materials have gotten much stricter about what they will accept. There is a growing demand for recycled materials in the U.S. market, but we don’t have adequate facilities. As a result, a lot of recyclables end up in landfills or incinerators rather than being reused.

  • Lack of unity in recycling goals: In the U.S., roughly 20,000 different communities must make their own decisions about recycling. While flexibility to suit the needs of different communities is important, a lack of standards makes it hard for anyone to contribute to nationwide sustainability goals.

Despite the many challenges involved in creating sustainable beverage cans and packaging, there are steps you can take to make your products “greener.”

Elements of Sustainable Beverage Container Design

Several factors determine if your beverage packaging is recyclable and how easy or challenging the process will be. When designing or choosing a recyclable beverage container, beverage companies serious about sustainability should factor in the following:

Can/Bottle Materials

When it comes to beverage containers, make sure you choose environmentally-conscious materials. According to the organization Alliance to End Plastic Waste, the most sustainable beverage container materials, from most to least sustainable, are:

  • Aluminum: Since cans are made from aluminum, most canned beverage products are highly recyclable by default. MRFs can recycle aluminum cans indefinitely without affecting the material’s quality. Also, the material’s lightness cuts down on transportation emissions and costs.

  • Recyclable Plastic: Recyclable plastic bottles cannot be recycled as many times as aluminum or glass, but they’re lightweight and don’t require as many resources to recycle as glass, cutting down on the environmental impact.

  • Glass: Glass bottles are very heavy and take a lot more energy to recycle, but like aluminum cans, they can also be recycled infinitely.

Labels, Coatings, and Adhesives

Make sure labels can be easily removed from beverage containers. For example, untested metal foil or metalized labels may throw off automated sorting systems.

In addition, products with plastic coatings or linings are more challenging and costly to recycle because the different materials must be separated first. Beverage companies should consider the amount of label adhesive used as it will need to be removed before the label can be recycled. Additionally, not all labels are recyclable and compatibility of adhesives and inks needs to be discussed with manufacturers.

Multipacking Solutions

There are several types of materials used for multipacking canned beverages, including:

  • LDPE plastic: Flexible low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is commonly used to make ring carriers that hold 2-, 4-, 6-, and 8-packs of 12-ounce or smaller aluminum cans, as well as various bottle configurations. Many of the options available are 100% recyclable.

  • HDPE plastic: High-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic carriers are strong and rigid. They are commonly used for multipacking slim, sleek and standard-size cans in 4-packs and 6-packs, as well as various bottle configurations. Many of the options available are 100% recyclable as well.

  • Shrink-wrap: Shrink-wrapping your multipacks can increase brand visibility and secure your beverages at a low price. However, the shrink wrap must be recycled at a specialized Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) that accepts soft plastic materials, since shrink-wrap often jams standard recycling machinery, causing slowdowns in their operation.

  • Paper/paperboard: Paper-based can carriers are often made with a plastic coating for added strength and moisture protection, but this makes them harder to recycle since the paper and plastic coating would need to be separated first.

And there are different types of degradation for these materials, such as:

  • Photodegradable can carriers: While you’ve likely seen companies market their “photodegradable” can rings, you should know most beverage LDPE rings are photodegradable. The technology was created specifically for beverage can rings to help mitigate environmental risks. Photodegradable beverage can rings use a polymer that is broken down when exposed to UV light. Unfortunately, when mixed in with other garbage, these plastics aren’t exposed to UV light and will not photodegrade.

  • Compostable can carriers: Compostable beverage can rings are a type of plant-based or fiber-based beverage ring that’s eco-friendly and will break down completely over time — but only under certain conditions. This type of carrier is designed to be composted in a specialized composting facility or in consumers’ at-home composting bins. However, the number of composting programs accepting compostable packaging is limited. Only 19% of the largest cities offer options, and these cities represent only 11% of the total U.S. population. Not to mention, this is access to composting options, not usage.

  • Biodegradable can carriers: A new option offered by Roberts PolyPro, our Grip-Pak® 100% biodegradable beer and beverage can rings are an earth-friendly and environmentally clean option that will completely decompose in landfill conditions, no sunlight required! The biodegradable plastic attracts microorganisms that break down and consume the plastic at an accelerated rate, only leaving behind organic matter.

Roberts PolyPro's Sustainable Solutions

Due to high-profile environmental concerns among consumers, beverage companies have been laser-focused on creating more sustainable and recyclable multipacks, leading to an explosion of innovation.

Roberts PolyPro is proud of our sustainable solutions and advancements in packaging materials, including our fully biodegradable* Grip-Pak® can rings, as well as 100% recyclable* HDPE Craft-Pak® can carriers and bottle handles that use up to 30% less plastic than competing products.

Overcoming Challenges and Promoting Sustainability

Recycling in the U.S. has a lot of room for improvement, and beverage companies play a key role in making the system more sustainable. Luckily, there are many ways your business can help, including:

  • Coming up with personal sustainability goals

  • Becoming more aware of local recycling, composting and landfill struggles and needs

  • Participating in awareness campaigns and promoting sustainability education

  • Linking to helpful information on disposal/recycling on your company website, marketing material and other platforms

  • Installing a collection box for consumers to drop their reusable and recyclable plastic can carriers after use

Now more than ever, consumers want to know what beverage companies are doing to lower their impact on the environment. These actions and many more can help you communicate your sustainability efforts as well.

Why Roberts PolyPro Opted for Bio

We are committed to keeping the same durable yet lightweight quality of our multipacks while also reducing the environmental impact of our products. With that goal in mind, our Craft-Pak® and bottle handle product lines are on their way to being 100% biodegradable too.

Our Commitment to Reducing Environmental Impact

Knowing the complexities and challenges of the U.S. recycling infrastructure and with consumer behavior in mind, we determined products that biodegrade completely when tossed in normal garbage was the most sustainable option under present conditions.

Save the Planet (and Money) With Sustainable Can Packaging

Aluminum can recycling is simple and energy-efficient, so it’s up to members of the beverage industry to design their canned products and packaging in a way that keeps it easy for consumers and facilities to dispose of them.

By being aware of how the recycling system works and how different design and packaging choices can impact sustainability, you can become a leader in the effort to create a circular economy.

We at Roberts PolyPro would love to be a partner on your journey. Our sustainable can carrier options can meet your sustainability goals and help you save.

Is Paper More Sustainable than Plastic?

*We collaborated with an independent agency to conduct laboratory testing under controlled conditions that replicate an urban landfill environment. This rigorous 28-week scientific test demonstrated that our Grip-Pak can rings completely biodegraded, without any false positives or false negatives.

*While Roberts PolyPro LDPE and HDPE materials are 100% recyclable, items accepted can vary based on your location. Please check with your local recycling office to see what is accepted in your area.