Whether it is a failure to collect the material from end consumers or a lack of infrastructure capable of recycling it, waste is often “recyclable” in name only, not in fact.
Businesses who buy packaging understand the growing problem of waste management and the need to recycle higher proportions of packaging waste. The EU Packaging Waste Directive amended in 2018 reinforced the principle of extended producer responsibility. Producers and users of packaging may soon be held physically or financially responsible for disposal of waste. Packaging choices will increasingly affect production costs, productivity, and public relations for businesses.
A recent survey of business customers in France, Denmark and the UK, by Antalis conducted by IFOP in 2021, found that environmental friendliness was now as important a priority in purchasing decisions as packaging functionality. Price competitiveness remained the most important factor in their purchasing decisions but 62% of survey respondents said they would “definitely” or “probably” pay more for environmentally friendly packaging products in the future.
Understanding the terms “recyclable” and “recycled” is a challenge for businesses and consumers who want to adopt more eco-friendly practices.
Packaging is in theory recyclable if it can be collected, processed, and returned to use in the form of raw materials or new products. It is effectively recyclable if those things can and do in fact happen in the country where the packaging is used. In other words, effective recyclability depends not just on the packaging in question but on whether there is infrastructure in place to collect, sort and recycle the material.
Soda bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), for example, can be and are recycled in most countries in the Eurozone. Other thermoplastics with high recycling rates include high density polyethylene (HDPE), used to make shampoo bottles, chemical containers and milk jugs, and polypropylene (PP), often used in food packaging films and containers.
Plastics made from polystyrene (PS) think styrofoam cups, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) have chemical and/or physical properties that cause them to have lower recycling rates.
Paper-based packaging is generally recyclable; however, the lack of recycling facilities makes it effectively not recyclable in some countries.
Recycled packaging, on the other hand, describes the composition of the packaging in terms of how much recycled material it contains. A package made with recycled materials is often recyclable itself, though not always. Making greater use of recycled material in packaging reduces the need to produce new product and encourages more effective recycling of packaging in general. It is now mandatory in the Eurozone to communicate the proportion of recycled materials used in packaging to consumers.
The AGEC law, (law against wastage and for the circular economy), passed in France last year creates new obligations for businesses to provide information on the environmental qualities of their products and packaging. That includes whether it is recyclable, compostable, or repairable. If packaging contains recycled or renewable material, the proportion of that material in the package must be disclosed. Information on the nature of the recycled material - such as recycled PET - or renewable material - such as bio-based plastics - must also be easily accessible by consumers.
Large companies are responding. French food-maker Bonduelle Group, for example, uses an average of 50% recycled material in its packaging in Europe and plans to continue raising that proportion. Coca Cola now uses plastic bottles made from 100% recycled PET in the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden and intends to have at least 50% Pet in all its bottles across Western Europe by 2023.
Mobius ribbons, green dots, blue angels, Nordic swans. The wide range of symbols and labels used in the Eurozone to communicate environmental information about packaging products can be confusing. Some refer to the composition of the packaging, others to its recyclability and still others to the environmental practices of the manufacturer. Consumer confusion is a major reason for the contamination of recycling streams in the collection process that results in more recyclable material being incinerated or ending up in landfills.
Three main categories of the most widely used symbols are identified:
PEFC/FSC symbols are found on wood-based products like paper and cardboard. Created by independent environmental organizations, the labels certify that the material was sourced from sustainably managed forests.
PP, PS, PETE… are numbers associated with an abbreviation to indicate the nature of the material used to make the packaging. This classification of the materials used has been implemented to facilitate collection and proper treatment (recycling, recovery) by waste professionals. In practice, this logo is misleading for consumers, who confuse it with the Möbius strip, who interpret it as information on recyclability.
Mobius Loop is the most commonly used environmental symbol indicates that a product or packaging is potentially recyclable. A Mobius loop with a percentage in the middle indicates how much recycled material was used in the production of the material.
The EU Ecolabel is intended to enable consumers to identify more environmentally friendly and healthier products. The label promotes the circular economy by encouraging producers to generate less waste and CO2 during the manufacturing process.
ISO 14001 is an international standard is aimed at any type of organization (business, association, public service, etc.) keen to set up a production, management and operating system that fits into a dynamic perspective of controlling environmental impacts. The terms of its application (updated in 2015) can be checked and certified by an approved organisation.
The European Parliament has taken a very ambitious approach to dealing with the problem of packaging waste. In 2018, it set recycling targets on plastic packaging, paper and cardboard, as well as metals and glass that are far higher than current recycling rates. For example, the proportion of plastic packaging recycled in 2018 was 32.5% according to the European Parliament and it has set a goal of 55% for EU countries by 2030. What’s more, it expects member countries to develop schemes and programs to meet those targets by the end of 2024.
That means that businesses will have to consider environmental criteria and recyclability more deeply when it comes to their packaging decisions.
IFOP, 2021, Environmental survey
Sustainability, Engaging Consumers to Reduce and Recycle
Webpackaging, 2019, What is the difference between Recycled and Recyclable packaging?
MacFarlane Packaging, 2020, What’s the difference between recyclable, biodegradable and compostable packaging?
MATAC, Industry Terms