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We are all in agreement about recycling everything we can for a healthier world and conservation of resources. Recycling is a key element of an overall circular economy strategy. This is as true for packaging as any other consumable. Yet despite our best efforts, not every package we target for recycling gets recycled. There are a couple things at work here:
- The process to recycle some packaging expends more energy than would be utilized to produce new items of the same material composition – yielding a net negative environmental impact
- Separability, cleanliness, and other issues prevent some packaging from being recycled at all because there is no ‘stream’ to accommodate it
We all hope new technology can develop a ‘universal’ recycling stream, capable of accepting a wide range of consumables, and recycling parts and components into new raw materials. We are obviously not there yet. But we can ensure more packaging does end up being recycled by making some smarter choices in the design phase.
Every package is going to be different, of course, due to the market application and what is required performance-wise. But in general, package design for recycling should take the following into consideration:
- The packaging components are recyclable by current technologies, and the process yields a material acceptable to secondary markets for new products
- The packaging is easily sorted by current recycling facilities so that it can be directed to the proper stream
- The packaging print and secondary labeling informs consumers that it is recyclable, and indicates any steps the consumer needs to take in order to facilitate proper recycling (like delivering the packaging to a specific location, separating a label from the package, etc.).
A major hinderance to recycling is the mix of components that make up a package. All these component materials may be recyclable on their own, but not when combined in a package unit. Again, depending on what the package is intended to do, combining components may be necessary. But when possible, these design guidelines can help ensure recycling takes place:
- Avoiding material combinations that hinder sorting, like plastics combined with other materials such as paper and metal.
- Selecting plastic materials that are easily recycled. These include high and low-density polyethylene (HDPE, LDPE) and PET
- Minimizing the use of dyes in plastic – this increases the value of the recycled material, and the chances that the material will be used again
- Designing with ‘recycle-friendly’ secondary materials – Adhesives and coatings that wash away are examples of this.
Doing the work at the front end of the process will yield more packaging capable of being recycled. There are more specific things that can be done depending upon your marketing and sustainability goals. Our experts can help – right from the start!