Designing for Recycling. 3 Ways to Improve Your Packaging.

There is an urgent need for recyclable packaging. Already, many companies are producing packaging with recycled materials, but we still see many companies not thinking about the packaging’s entire lifecycle. E.g. what happens once the container has been used?
Brands need to be more proactive in order to drive a sustainable transition where materials enter a circular economy through recycling.

Gradually, the political framework is coming into place. Last year’s EU directives urge a transition away from single-use plastics, towards reusable products and systems.

By 2030, beverage bottles must contain at least 30% recycled content. And the recycling of resources from all types of packaging should be increased to 65% in 2025 and 70% in 2030 respectively.

Now, brands have an opportunity to lead the transition towards sustainability. In the following, we give you three considerations for developing better and more recyclable packaging.

Plan Longterm

The best results in packaging are obtained when recyclability is thought in from the beginning. Sustainability shouldn’t be an add-on for short-term marketing purposes.

So when designing your packaging, plan long-term and consider the entire life cycle. What happens before, during and after consumption or usage?

A deep understanding of the usage will help you choose the optimal solution. This might require you to rethink your packaging. But it will be easier and cheaper doing so before production gets started.

Getting materials right

From a strategic level to a tactical, it is about choosing which materials to use and how. Every material has its own unique attributes in terms of function and recyclability. Still, there is some rule of thumbs that can guide your choice.

Firstly, it is important to make the packaging easy to disassemble and sort. One way to do so is by reducing the number of materials used. Avoid mixing materials, as it makes it much more difficult to sort and recycle the packaging at the waste management facility.

Using materials that require little processing in the production, also requires little processing in being broken down.

Secondly, we recommend choosing materials of higher quality. This will make the packaging durable when used but it will also help preserve the material’s attributes for longer.

Some material can better handle being recycled. Over time plastic loses it quality whereas glass and metal can be recycled infinitely. Once the plastic has been downcycled, it can not be upcycled again for food because of health regulations. Eventually, it will be downcycled until it can only be burned for energy production.

Lastly, it is also important to consider how the materials are made and how large their carbon footprint is. E.g., 1 kg of aluminium requires 4 kg of bauxite. Whereas 1 kg of glass takes 1,2 kg of river sand.

Planning the Packaging’s Afterlife

So now, we’ve planned longterm and chosen the right materials. So how can we help get the materials recycled?

By working together with waste management facilities and following their standards in regards to design, materials and production, it will improve recycling. Being up to date on your recycler’s requirements will ensure that everybody speaks the same language.

To help with recycling, the packaging needs to provide information that clearly states which type of material this is and how to sort it correctly. American company Digimarc has together with Procter & Gamble developed a nearly invisible digital watermarking, dubbed HolyGrail. Small marks on the packaging let sorting machines know which material it is handling. This helps speed up waste management and reduces the number of mistakes.

In order to recycle the materials, it is, however, necessary, that the product and packaging are collected. So large corporations like Coca-Cola and Danone has promised to help collect their own packaging in an effort to increase and improve recycling.

Ready, Set, Recycle!

As companies, agencies and manufacturers, we must help consumers do the sustainable thing. Let’s strive to make the sustainable choice the most convenient.

Yes, it is a complex process. But for every step we take – both big and small – we walk further and further on our journey for sustainability.