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Recycling explained: designing packaging for recyclability

Jul 18, 2023

New Hope Network staff | Jun 08, 2020

This article was produced as a part of the Sustainable Packaging Toolkit.

When designing packaging for products, manufacturers have a plethora of variables to manage and balance. It is crucial to understand the entirety of the value chain, particularly the role of recyclers or Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs). Ultimately, MRFs determine the true recyclability of your product and whether your packaging fulfills its intended goal.

Eco-Cycle, a mission-driven, nonprofit recycler based in Boulder, Colorado, is a leader in resource conservation. In this interview Kate Bailey, policy and research director at Eco-Cycle, provides crucial context for our recycling systems, explains how to design packaging for recycling and outlines key issues with plastics in our recycling system.

Why is it important to recycle?

Kate Bailey: Recycling has been called the No. 1 thing we can do for the environment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Recycling is a critical component of a sustainable, circular economy and is crucial to maximizing natural resources, saving water, energy and creating more resilient communities. Recycling is also one of the fastest, easiest and most cost-effective ways to reduce our climate impact—recycling 1 ton of materials saves 3 tons of carbon emissions. Here are the top five reasons why we recycle.

What happens to recyclables once they are picked up?

KB: In a single-stream recycling program, all recyclables—paper, plastic, glass, steel, cartons and aluminum—are collected in the same cart and sent to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Most MRFs use a combination of people and automated equipment to sort the materials back into their respective material types. The materials are then compressed to make bales and sold to manufacturers around the country, and sometimes the world, to be used to make new products. Check out this video on how a MRF works and then use this map to find a MRF near you. (Insider tip: MRF tours are a great way to engage employees on how and why to recycle.)

What do we currently recycle?

KB: Chart courtesy of The Recycling Partnership, State of Curbside Recycling 2020.

How well do we recycle packaging?

KB: Recycling rates vary widely by the type of product or packaging. Here in the U.S., we recycle more than 88% of cardboard boxes but only 30% of plastic bottles. In general, we are much worse at recycling plastics than other materials.

See more stats from EPA.

Who can I ask to find out if my product/packaging is recyclable or if it will be recyclable in the future?

KB: There is no definitive source that can say if a package is universally recyclable, but there are some really good places that can help get you started. These include:

How can I design my product/packaging to be more recyclable?

KB: Many industry associations have recycling design guidelines that you can follow. For example, the Association for Plastics Recyclers offers design guidelines around labels, closures, colors and other attributes to make your plastic packaging more recyclable. However, for packaging types like pouches that are currently unrecyclable, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to change the recycling system. The best advice is to get involved with a cross-industry collaboration initiative to work with packaging designers, brands, recyclers and others to co-create new solutions, such as RCD Packaging, OSC2’s Packaging Collaborative or the Climate Collaborative.

What are some common mistakes to avoid in designing packaging to be more recyclable?

KB: To avoid making mistakes in terms of design packaging, you can:

Which plastics are recyclable?

KB: You’ll find the recycling symbol on almost all plastics, but in reality most plastics AREN’T recyclable. The chasing arrows symbol does not indicate whether a plastic material can be recycled. In general the shape of the plastic is a better way to know if it’s likely recyclable. Eco-Cycle’s guidelines emphasize the shape of the plastics. Most communities accept plastic bottles, jugs and jars for recycling. Beyond that, nearly all other plastics are not recyclable, which is why there is a lot of emphasis on finding ways to reduce, reuse and redesign plastics.

We recommend choosing #1 PET, #2 HDPE and #5 PP as they are the most recyclable, least toxic plastics to use in making your products and packaging. We recommend avoiding #3 PVC, #6 PS/EPS and #7 plastics because they are more toxic and less recyclable. Check out this chart for a quick run-down of the plastic codes.

Why is it so challenging to recycle pouches and other flexible film recycling?

KB: Pouches and other flexible plastic packaging are very hard to recycle for three main reasons:

What about store take-back programs for film plastics?

KB: Many retail stores and community drop-off centers offer recycling programs for film plastics such as plastic bags, bread bags and the wrap around your toilet paper (see a complete list here). Some of these programs are expanding to accept some types of flexible film pouches that have been specifically designed to be compatible with these programs. These film plastics are commonly recycled into composite lumber used for making decks, benches and playground sets. While these programs are a good start to expanding recycling programs, they have limited effectiveness: Only about 4% of residents participate in store take-back programs.

What the best thing brands can do right now to support more recycling?

KB: Using recycled materials in your products and packaging is the most important step you can take right now to help improve recycling. Start today by asking how much recycled content is in all your packaging and labels, and then commit to increasing your use of PCR content and challenge your competitors to do the same.

Ask for the highest amount of post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in all your products and packaging, because purchasing PCR content ensures that there is a strong demand for recycled materials and gives recyclers a place to sell what is collected. Get inspired by the Recycling Demand Champions program.

More information about text formats

Why is it important to recycle?Kate Bailey: What happens to recyclables once they are picked up? KB: What do we currently recycle?KB: Paper: Metals: GlassPlasticHow well do we recycle packaging?KB: Who can I ask to find out if my product/packaging is recyclable or if it will be recyclable in the future?KB: Talking to yourlocal recycling companyChecking out the How2Recycle labelUsing these worksheets from the Sustainable Packaging CoalitionHow can I design my product/packaging to be more recyclable?KB: What are some common mistakes to avoid in designing packaging to be more recyclable?KB: Ask for clarification on how it can be recycled.Changing the design can make it non-recyclable.Designing for recycling doesn’t mean it will get recycled. Don’t leave the consumer guessing.Which plastics are recyclable?KB: Why is it so challenging to recycle pouches and other flexible film recycling?KB: Buyers for flexible plastic are very limited: They're hard to sort:High costs for collecting and sorting: What about store take-back programs for film plastics?KB: What the best thing brands can do right now to support more recycling?KB: