February 7, 2023
This package claims that it biodegrades. How? Where? How long does it take? What do I do with it? Does my town have composting facilities?
This one says that I can put it in my compost bin. I don’t have a compost bin. Can I recycle it or should I throw it away? Will a composting facility take it?
This package says that it’s recyclable. Can I put it in my blue bin? It’s not on my town’s list of recyclable items and the chasing arrows don’t include a number that I recognize. I only know about numbers 1 and 2.
When recycling, do I leave the caps on the bottles or throw them away? What about the sleeves? Do I have to wash out the bottles? Do they have to be perfectly clean?
What is chemical recycling? Why is it sometimes called advanced recycling? What’s the difference versus mechanical recycling? By the way, what is mechanical recycling?
Sometimes I see chasing arrows, which I think means that this package can be recycled. But sometimes I don’t see arrows, just a triangle with a number inside or below it. What’s the difference? Does a triangle mean that this package can be recycled?
I always buy the same brand of toothpaste. Sometimes I buy the whitening type and sometimes I buy the extra whitening version. The outer cartons seem to be made of the same type of paperboard and have the chasing arrows, but they have different recycling messages below the arrows. Why? I would have thought that the chasing arrows meant that it can be easily recycled. How can there be different messages for what’s basically the same carton?
I’m looking at the How 2 Recycle information on a package of cookies. There are three boxes marked BOX, WRAP, TRAY.
Above the word BOX are chasing arrows and the word PAPER. Does this mean I can put the box in my recycling bin?
Above the word WRAP it says multilayer and has chasing arrows with a line through them. Are they talking about the clear plastic overwrap? How do I know if it’s multilayer packaging?
Finally, above the word TRAY it says PLASTIC with chasing arrows and the words CHECK LOCALLY*. With whom? For what? The asterisk refers to a phrase that reads “Not recycled in all communities.” What about my community?
I’ve said this before: Consumers generally don’t read recycling messaging on packaging. They either don’t know it’s there or can’t understand it.
Also, because brand owners don’t consider sustainability to be that important or they know that it’s really not of interest to the majority of their consumers, it’s generally placed “on the other side of the tracks” of the available packaging real estate.
Around 10 years ago, I did some research for a major PET supplier to the beverage industry. While interviewing one of the top 3 people in Coke’s packaging realm, I was told that “We’re not in the PET business or the glass business. We’re in the refreshment business. We’d make a package out of used chewing gum if it protected our product; delivered our brand messaging and packaging ‘swirl’; was cost effective; and was accepted by consumers.”
What all of this means is that it’s not the responsibility of consumer brand owners to fight this battle alone. They are in the product development and promotion business. Converters are in the product containment and protection business. Consumers are in the consumption and disposal business. Finally, waste processors and recyclers are in the recovery and reprocessing business.
Have you checked the latest regulations being proposed and implemented in Europe? How about in California? Maine? Colorado? It’s becoming clear that progressive governments are no longer willing to wait for the packaging supply chain to collaboratively meet public and legislative demands for less packaging waste, primarily through source reduction, reuse, and recycling. There’s even talk of eliminating outer cartons if it can’t be proved that they provide functional, rather than simply marketing, value.
Those who believe that science leads us to the truth need to remember what the Coke executive said: The truth is what consumers believe it to be. (The public’s reaction to Covid is a clear indication of the fact that there are many truths, depending upon ideological beliefs.)
If the packaging value chain, as an industry, cannot assemble a simple, meaningful, and compelling truth for the public to rally around, legislators will do it for us. That’s their job. Shame on us for not doing ours.
Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved in sustainable packaging for 25 years, working as a marketing executive, consultant, strategic planner, editor, writer, and communications expert. He’s President of Robert Lilienfeld Consulting, working with materials suppliers, converters, trade associations, retailers, and brand owners. He is Executive Director at SPRING, The Sustainable Packaging Research, Information, and Networking Group. You can also write him at [email protected] or visit his LinkedIn profile.
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