SPC Sustainability: Designing for recyclability might not be as easy as it seems

David Bellm

January 29, 2014

3 Min Read
SPC Sustainability: Designing for recyclability might not be as easy as it seems

Incorporating recyclability considerations into the package design phase is crucial for boosting our stagnant recycling rates and meeting the growing demand for post-consumer recycled material. But what exactly makes a package recyclable? The answer is surprisingly more complex than one might think, because the recycling supply chain is more complex than we would like to believe.

While package design has traditionally necessitated a deep understanding of performance characteristics, market prices and aesthetics, designing for recyclability demands an equally deep understanding of the recycling process.

Let’s begin with the first step in the recycling process: the collection system, where used packaging is gathered from consumers. Knowing that wet-strength paper is an outthrow (meaning that the paper recyclers cannot handle too much of it), a packaging designer with recyclability in mind might design a frozen food carton without a wet-strength additive. But frozen food cartons are commonly excluded from collection, because even though they may not be made of wet-strength paper, recyclers can’t rely on consumers to be able to tell the difference.

The first step in designing for recyclability is to design for municipal waste collection. The accepted types of packaging vary widely by municipality, and it’s important to know what is commonly collected.

Creating packaging that is commonly collected is only the first step of the recycling process, and collection doesn’t guarantee recycling. Collected packaging is sent off for sorting at a material recovery facility (MRF), where there are numerous opportunities for packaging to be expelled from the recycling stream.

For example, most MRFs begin sorting by using equipment that identifies the flat shape of paper products, which unfortunately, is the same shape as the detached ends of steel food cans. So, although a steel can has the seemingly recyclable combination of material and packaging format, its recyclability is hindered by the sorting equipment process at the MRF. Most likely, those steel can ends will be needlessly transported to a paper recycler where they will undoubtedly be tossed with other contaminants into a landfill.

Glass packaging is often subjected to further opportunities for rejection after it passes through a MRF and is sent to a glass beneficiator for color sorting. Here an optical sorter will reject painted glass because it looks opaque like ceramic pieces, and beneficiators will often reject blue glass simply because it is not a color that reprocessors want.

This brings us to the final step in the recycling process: reprocessing, where recyclable packaging is actually recycled to create new material. If packaging has gotten this far, one might think that surely it could be considered to be recyclable.

Unfortunately this is still not true for all packaging. A good example here is aluminum foil, which is commonly collected, properly sorted at a MRF, and sent to an aluminum reprocessor, where its thinness often causes it to flash off and vaporize out of the furnace without contributing any valuable metal to the reprocessing operation. That aluminum foil can hardly be considered to have been recycled.

Packaging designers often have the very best intentions in mind, but designing for recyclability poses a complex set of decisions throughout the process.

Recyclable packaging must be designed with each step of the recycling chain in mind, using the proper combination of material, format, color and shape. Unless the ideas of packaging designers and engineers are harmonized with the constraints of the recycling process, much of the packaging designed for recyclability will continue to become casualties of the complex recycling process.

However, if we can learn to design packaging with each step of the recycling process in mind, we can take one more step towards achieving high recycling rates, increasing the availability of recycled content and ultimately furthering the idea of sustainable packaging.

Adam Gendell is a project associate for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (www.sustainablepackaging.org), a project of GreenBlue. For additional information, email [email protected].


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