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January 21, 2022

“When it comes to effective packaging design to maximise recycling rates, simplicity is key”

According to the GM of UK trade organisation Alupro, Tom Giddings, packaging manufacturers should take every opportunity to promote the recyclability of their products to consumers – and it’s easier than you think.

In the UK, last year, figures from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs show that around 67% of all packaging materials were recycled. While a rate of over two-thirds should certainly be celebrated, it’s important to consider the 33% – around 4.8m tonnes – that didn’t make it to the reprocessing line.

Who is to blame?

It’s always easy to point the finger of blame at a plethora of external factors. After all, insufficient education, inconsistent collection systems, accidental contamination and dwindling consumer engagement all undoubtedly play their part.

As an industry, we have an obligation to work collaboratively to reduce the volume of packaging sent to landfill and improve the circularity of the supply chain. As an industry, we need to find a solution.

Packaging manufacturers should not only lead the way, seeking out incremental improvements in material choice, packaging design and product labelling but also reach out to brand owners and encourage them to make more sustainable packaging choices.

Design for recycling

When it comes to packaging design with recycling in mind, simplicity is key. We need to make it as easy as possible for consumers to recycle their spent packaging – not a chore to separate material types, identify what can and can’t be recycled and research which streams they should be placed in.

We need to ensure that product packaging is designed, from the beginning, with the end goal of optimum recyclability. In essence, embracing design for recycling principles.

Take the humble aluminium can: Strong, lightweight, durable and infinitely recyclable, it’s an excellent option for preserving carbonated beverages. The entire external surface can be customised for labelling and marketing purposes, meaning no secondary packaging is needed (such as wraps, sleeves, slips or caps). It’s also easy to transport and store, and it’s straightforward to recycle.

In comparison, a takeaway hot drinks cup, for example, features a recyclable plastic lid – which should be placed in plastic recycling – a recyclable corrugated cardboard sleeve – which must be kept perfectly dry and should be placed in cardboard/paper recycling – and a plastic-lined cardboard cup, which is notoriously difficult to recycle.

Two beverage containers, but very different recyclability ratings. The picture becomes even more complicated when considering more premium packaging items, which often use multiple material types and hard-to-recycle techniques such as lamination.

Thinking outside the box and approaching the packaging design process with recyclability in mind, therefore, should be a key priority for manufacturers. Let’s be clear: Complex packaging featuring multiple material types, lamination and other hard-to-recycle elements are much more likely to end up in general waste streams than simple, effective packaging that makes it easy for the consumer to recycle.

There has to be a balance.

Effective labelling

Everyone understands recycling labelling detailed on packaging, right? According to recent research, this isn’t quite the case. A survey by L’Oréal Paris Elvive found that consumers are widely confused by the sheer breadth of labelling.

With hundreds of icons, labels and logos, respondents said they find it difficult to distinguish between them, and consider this complexity to be one of the reasons why many items are needlessly thrown into general waste. Combine this with complex local recycling systems, where guidance doesn’t necessarily align with packaging advice, and it’s understandable that some consumers have become disenfranchised.

Again, packaging design can offer a solution – and a simple one at that. Essentially a blank canvas, packaging can prove a great way to communicate with consumers and educate them about how, when and where to recycle. It’s important, though, that messaging is both simple and effective.

Branston, for example, prints the slogan ‘Metal Recycles Forever’ on the top of its baked beans cans. A simple message, but perfect timing when the consumer opens their can, then looks to dispose of the spent packaging.

But, it’s not enough just to help consumers understand what to recycle. Indeed, there’s a wider opportunity here to maximise recyclate quality. Manufacturers should be thinking clearly about this – it’s imperative to help reprocessors harness the true value from recycling. Alupro member I2R Packaging Solutions, for example, embosses the phrase ‘Rinse and Recycle’ into the bottom of each of its aluminium trays – a great way to reduce unnecessary contamination, especially when restricted by comingled kerbside collections.

What about aerosols? Using packaging to emphasise that they need to be empty to ensure they can be recycled is not only an opportunity, it’s a responsibility. There’s a multitude of recycling advice points that packaging can be used to communicate – the list goes on and on!

Collaboration is key

While a 67% recycling rate for packaging in the UK iis positive news, there’s still a way to go before we get close to 100% and it’s up to all of us to play our part. Material choice, packaging design and product labelling can play a hugely pivotal role in engaging consumers, changing behaviours and maximising recycling rates.

At Alupro, our message is simple – the recyclability of packaging should be an absolute priority to manufacturers. So, when you come to design your next packaging item, think about these three things – material choice, design for recycling and product labelling.

It could make all the difference.

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