I joined Nestlé 25 years ago, when I was asked to help with bottle recycling operations. I was selling what we call ‘post-consumer recycled bottles’ — the plastic you return at stores through state recycling programs — to plastics experts who would use the plastic to make new bottles. When your job is selling plastic to plastic experts, you’re on a steep learning curve about what materials are most appealing for recycling.
There are around 1,000–1,500 different kinds of plastics, which fall under seven categories and among those plastics PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles are among the most recyclable. It’s my role to find new ways to encourage that recycling process, to make it more accessible, more efficient, and make sure we’re recycling every part of the bottle we can.
Recycling is a big priority at Nestlé Waters North America (NWNA). Most of our products are sold in plastic bottles — that’s just a fact. It’s also a fact that plastic waste is a concern for many. We’re in a unique position — ready and able to find ways to make plastic bottles a legitimate recycling resource. Here’s how.
Subtle Doesn’t Mean Small
A lot of innovations are small or even invisible to the consumer, but they have a huge impact on environmental footprints — that’s the work I’m most proud of. Sometimes it’s about using basic science in a smart way. Take the labels on many beverage bottles, for example. Labels can be tricky, because if they get ground up for recycling along with the plastic of the bottle, some of the label materials can stain the clear PET plastic flakes, making the material unusable for recycled bottles.
To solve this problem we looked to something we understand extremely well: water. By using slightly different plastic in the label, it can be separated from the PET flakes because the label plastic (and the bottle cap!) floats, whereas the ground bottle plastic doesn’t. It might sound like a small thing, but it’s huge in terms of making more material recyclable.
This smart technology allows Nestlé to use more recycled content in our bottles. We already implemented this change across a number of brands without consumers experiencing any change to the product they love — the labels look exactly the same.
Embracing Closed Loops
At Nestlé Waters, one of things we are working hard on is taking the “single” out of “single-use” plastic. Our bottles were never meant to be thrown away. For several years now, we’ve been using increased amounts of rPET in our bottles. We have a Nestlé Pure Life brand water bottle that is 100% rPET. What does that mean? When you see that your water bottle is rPET, the plastic used to make the new bottle is made from bottles that were recycled and brought back through the recycling loop. Studies show this is 70–80% less energy intensive and will reduce greenhouse gasses.
If you’re paying attention to the world of sustainable packaging you’re probably hearing the word “loop” quite often. Closing the loop on recycling means exactly what it sounds like — the process should be a contained circular cycle. You buy a bottle of water, you enjoy the product, then you send that bottle off to be recycled, and later those same materials can be back in your hand as a new bottle.
Another part of that loop? The internal process here at NWNA. Recycling isn’t something we think about after we create a new product — it’s something we embed from the outset. We collaborate with the innovation teams from the beginning of their development process, right through to working with sales teams once a product is ready for distribution. That way, packaging sustainability is really at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
Staying Curious through Collaboration
A large part of my job is about keeping my mind open — I’m hearing about new sustainability initiatives all the time. Some of them never make it to market, because they don’t work as well in practice as they did in theory. Some sound unlikely to succeed at the outset, but as the work is done to push them forward we find out that they really can change the game. I don’t discount any idea, no matter how unconventional it sounds, because I’ve learned that sometimes the ideas that sound unconventional can actually bring formidable change.
To find these ideas we can’t be insular. We’re working with other organizations with a passion for recycling to push things forward — our recent $6 million investment in the Closed Loop Fund (CLF) reflects this commitment to collaboration. As you might imagine, recycling facilities don’t operate with a large profit margin, and an ageing infrastructure can struggle to keep up with the growing rate of plastics available for recycling. New technology costs money, and CLF is stepping in to help recycling facilities across the US modernize their equipment.
Researching new ideas is also something we’re doing as a company on a global scale. I was excited by the recent news that Nestlé is creating an Institute of Packaging Sciences — a research center dedicated solely to the discovery and development of environmentally friendly packaging. After all, curiosity is active — it takes work to explore and develop new ideas!
Advocating for Recycling
If there’s one thing I’d want you to take away from learning about this work, it’s that your water bottle is 100% recyclable and was never designed to go to a landfill or find its way to the ocean. We carefully designed that bottle so that the plastic material can be used again and again. One of the biggest challenges we face around plastics is that consumers don’t know how or where they can recycle our bottles.
The How2Recycle label is one way we’re trying to tackle this problem. How2Recycle, a project of GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition, helps consumers by providing clear and concise recycling information, right there on the package. Keep an eye out for this label on pack, to help you recycle.
Working towards a more sustainable culture is everyone’s job, and we’re excited to be a part of the global effort in bringing plastics out of landfills and into recycling facilities. Keep an eye out for more exciting projects coming up in the future, and I’ll be here behind the scenes with many other dedicated associates monitoring and implementing the latest packaging innovations.
More to explore: