Carst and Walker
Polymer ID

The large and clear of polymer ID

‘Without the logo, waste plastic is just rubbish.’ The apt words of Woolworth’s ‘green’ warrior, Tom McLaughlin and the retailer’s foods technical manager for environmental sustainability who, with several other concerned entities, is driving a crusade for big and bold polymer ID logos on all plastic packaging.

‘There’s a pressing need for brand owners and retailers, including corner stores and fast food outlets, in fact, for any organisation that distributes or uses packaging, to specify and ensure that all plastic packaging moving through their operations sports a plastic polymer identification logo,’ says David Hughes, executive director of the Plastics Federation of SA.

David makes four important points:

* All plastic packaging can be recycled or used as a source of energy recovery. Plastic waste – whether from the household, factories, retail/commercial outlets or from agriculture – must be seen as a valuable resource, because that’s what it is.
* Plastic polymers are not all the same from a technical point of view and MUST be separated prior to recycling.
* The easiest and most efficient way to separate the polymers is to refer to the ID logo imprinted on the pack.
* Reuse and recycling of plastics is critically important to South Africa and the world to reduce landfill growth and our dependence on non-sustainable resources (oil and coal), and to lessen our carbon footprint since recycling requires less energy than virgin production.

So what’s the problem?
It’s quite obvious, says David. ‘Not all plastic packaging and not all food packaging is currently identified and this needs to change and change soon. Another issue is that even when the packaging is marked with the polymer identification logo, it’s often illegible.’

Additonally, he points out, it’s common to find ID discrepancies with two-part packaging where only one part has a logo: ‘Take tubs, for instance, where the lid is not marked but the base is. More complex is a bottle with a cap and a label. Typically the bottle itself is made from PET and is marked on the bottle base, while the cap is likely to be polypropylene – unmarked – and the label either PVC or polyethylene – also unmarked. Ideally all three items should bear identification to assist the plastic waste collector and recycler,’ he stresses.

Generally plastic waste from industry and commerce is easily collected, sorted and recycled and the polymer identity is often known, even if it’s not imprinted on the item. Waste from the consumer, or from shopping malls and the like, is a very different story as it’s mostly not pre-sorted by the user and even where households do separate all their recyclables from paper and wet waste – the polymers are not separated out. So identification rests with the collector and the recycler.

Why is the polymer ID logo so important?
Polymers are specifically different from each other, performing differently – so for recycling their technical integrity must be maintained. It’s no different from metal recycling and keeping copper separate from aluminium, or stainless from mild steel. The only time polymer separation is not as important is when the plastic waste is incinerated for energy recovery or deliberate destruction. ‘Furthermore, where the polymer logo is not present, it’s much more likely in South Africa that the spent item will end up in landfill and that’s just not an acceptable option anymore. We absolutely need to recover as much as we can for recycling or energy recovery,’ remarks David.

He also draws attention to the fact that biodegradable and normal plastic packaging are not good bed fellows from a recycling point of view, as the ‘bio’ part can ruin the performance of recycled material. Thus, all packaging claiming to be biodegradable should be clearly marked and be kept separate from normal polymers in the collection chain.

What must the brand owners and retailers do?
Brand owners are the lead agent in product life-cycle and as such should not abrogate responsibility to other role-players and stakeholders. It is their responsibility to insist on appropriate polymer ID logos, and they also have a role in consumer information and education.

Similarly, retailers across the spectrum, liquor, clothing, food, music, fast food, hardware or any type of FMCG store for that matter, must insist that the packs they stock bear the polymer logos. 

‘The same applies to the airlines and similar organisations. And remember that the packaging includes plastic point-of-display items, such as hangers, that end up being recycled.

Of course, the bigger stores have more clout and can simply enforce the polymer logo practice through their purchasing functions. But the smaller retailers can do just the same,’ declares David.

With major retailers enjoying millions of feet through their stores, they can also do their bit with educational campaigns on the polymer logos and the importance of recycling, ie informing consumers through the use of in-store banners, newsletters and so on. At the same time, these would be an excellent PR exercise to strut their green credentials. The smaller retailers can do just the same.

Woolworths’ Tom McLaughlin, the retailer’s foods technical manager for environmental sustainability, is an ardent proponent of large and clear polymer ID logos and warns that Woolies is thinking of imposing fines on non-conforming packaging suppliers.

What must the packaging industry do?
Converters can be proactive and ensure their moulds or printing presses are modified to ensure that the polymer logo appears on all products. ‘This action will cost money, but it is part of “Extended Producer Responsibility” as defined in the new DEAT Waste Management Bill and internationally.
It’s a good place to start to demonstrate how to go about protecting this over-burdened planet of ours,’ concludes David.

Plastics Federation of SA T +27 011 3144021,

Woolies and Polyoak leading the way

THE ‘Good Business Journey’ is Woolworth’s much-publicised corporate strategy and one which has sustainability as a core element. In implementing it, Tom McLaughlin and his team have been working closely with packaging suppliers, one of whom is Polyoak Packaging that has been quick to walk the green talk and implement large and clear polymer logos on its packs, notably on its new yoghurt tubs and salad dressing bottles it supplies to Woolies.

‘Where and how this is done depends on the type of packaging and the space it offers,’ says Alison Louw of Design First, Polyoak’s in-house R&D and design department. ‘For example, the base of the yoghurt tub had enough area for a large, clear polymer symbol, whereas on the salad dressing bottle we needed to put it on the side panel. The abbreviated name for the polymer is also included underneath the symbol to help educate consumers as to what the numbers stand for.’

From a number of aspects the new Woolworths’ yoghurt tub is a good example of more sustainable packaging from another aspect, ie the one kilo pack is made from one material type, polypropylene, and no longer uses a combination of plastic and aluminium foil making the entire pack easy to recycle. The injection moulded tamper-evident tub ensures product integrity and safety without the need for a foil seal. 

‘In this journey towards sustainable packaging, every step counts. We are proud to be working with a company like Woolworths to do whatever we can to lightweight packaging, design packaging that is easily recyclable and increase the awareness and importance of recycling,’ says Jeremy Mackintosh, group MD of Polyoak Packaging.

Polyoak Packaging +27 021 7109200,

First published in PACKAGiNG & Print Media Magazine, April 2008, written by Brenda Neall

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