According to the latest insight from Defra, more than 67% of all packaging materials placed on the market in 2020 were recycled. Indeed, of the 12.6 million tonnes of packaging waste arisings, PRNs were issued for 7.8 million, including 76% of all metal packaging, 75.8% of glass and 65.6% of paper and cardboard.

But while packaging recycling rates should undoubtedly be celebrated, it’s important to pause and consider the 33% that didn’t make it to the reprocessing line – either sorted and sent for incineration or simply dumped in landfill. A minority percentage, granted, but still more than 4.8 million tonnes of waste – a weight equivalent to 32 blue whales, or 384,000 double decker buses.

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Aluminium Packaging Recycling Organisation (Alupro) general manager Tom Giddings discusses why material choice, packaging design and product labelling can play a hugely pivotal role in engaging consumers, changing behaviours and maximising kerbside recycling rates.

Who is to blame?

The easy answer would be to point the finger of blame at a plethora of external factors, all combining to justify this tonnage. After all, insufficient education, inconsistent collection systems, accidental contamination, and dwindling consumer engagement all undoubtedly play their part.

However, we should instead see this as an opportunity to further improve packaging recycling rates. 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.

But what can packaging manufacturers do to help? In short, by not only leading the way with incremental improvements when it comes to material choice, packaging design and product labelling – three elements capable of revolutionising recycling rates – but also by reaching out to brands and encouraging them to make more sustainable choices when it comes to their packaging choices.

Design for recycling

When it comes to effective packaging design to maximise recycling rates, simplicity is key. We need to make it easy for consumers to recycle their spent packaging, not a chore to separate material types, identify which can and which can’t be recycled, research which streams they should be placed in and be engaged throughout.

As such, 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 as an example. Strong, lightweight, durable and infinitely recyclable, it’s an excellent option for preserving carbonated beverages. The whole external surface can be effectively customised for labelling and marketing purposes, meaning no secondary packaging is needed (such as wraps, sleeves, slips or caps).

It’s easy to transport and store, compromises just a single material type, and it’s straightforward to recycle.

In comparison, take the more complicated example of a takeaway coffee cup. 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.

So, two beverage containers, but very different ratings when it comes to ease of recycling. The picture gets even more complicated when it comes to more luxury 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 should therefore 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? Well, 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 suggested that it was difficult for them to distinguish between each and considered this complexity a reason behind many items being needlessly thrown into general waste. Combine this with complex local recycling systems, where council guidance doesn’t necessarily align with packaging advice, and it’s obvious that consumers will become somewhat 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. However, it’s important that this messaging is both simple and effective.

Branston, for example, prints the ‘Metal Recycles Forever’ slogan on the top of their baked beans cans. A simple message, but perfect timing when you come to open your can and look 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 helping reprocessors harness the true value from recycling. I2R for example, an Alupro member, embosses the ‘Rinse and Recycle’ slogan into the bottom of each of their aluminium trays – a great way to reduce unnecessary contamination, especially if you’re restricted by comingled kerbside collections.

Thinking further afield, what about aerosols, for example? Using packaging to tell consumers that they need to be empty to ensure they can be recycled is both an opportunity and a responsibility. This is just one in thousands of recycling advice points that packaging can be used to communicate – the list goes on and on!

Collaboration is key

While a packaging recycling rate of 67% is positive news, especially when you dig down into individual material streams, there’s a significant way to go before we get close to a 100% rate in the UK 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 kerbside recycling rates.

While I’ve only touched on a few best practice examples, there’s countless more being delivered across the packaging sector. At Alupro, our message is simple – the recyclability of packaging should be an absolute priority to manufacturers; it really can make a difference to kerbside recycling rates.

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!