Eliminate plastic items
More recyclable formats
Designing packaging to be compatible with recycling is essential for keeping plastic packaging materials in the circular economy. Plastic IQ distinguishes two solutions that can increase the recyclability of packaging:
Switch to more recyclable formats and/or polymers, such as by moving from multi-material to mono-material items, shifting to more commonly recyclable polymers, or switching from a small-format item to a larger-format item. For this solution, see the separate Solutions Database page on “Switch to more recyclable formats.”
Design to enhance packaging recyclability (within the same polymer and format) by ensuring packages comply with “APR preferred” guidelines. For many packages, there are often additional modifications that can help further enhance recyclability, but the challenge is to design and implement them.
Even seemingly small features can be detrimental to recyclability or even make a package incompatible for recycling altogether. Components like labels, adhesives, and fillers can all impact the ultimate outcome from recycling. Designing to enhance recyclability can increase both the process yield and value of recycled plastic (1). It can also determine whether a package will be recycled into a similar application/material or downcycled into a lower-quality plastic/application, losing value for the economy.
The following are used for general information and illustrative purposes and do not reflect a preference of or an endorsement by The Recycling Partnership or our affiliates or vendors.
The Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) developed thorough design guidance and test protocols to help packaging designers enhance the recyclability of plastic packages. The APR Design® Guides are organized by resin types (PET, HDPE, PP, PE film, PS/EPS, PLA, and PVC) and include common packaging components (labels, inks, adhesives, closures, dispensers, etc.). All APR protocols are publicly available on the APR website and can help designers determine if their package is “preferred” for recycling, has features detrimental to recycling, or is non-recyclable (2).
APR provides protocols for testing and successful recyclable innovations may be eligible for one of the APR Recognition programs. Designers can also access training and guidance through the APR Design® for Plastics Recyclability Training Program.
In addition to the APR Design Guides® there are other resources available that can help companies further assess recyclability. Walmart developed a Sustainable Packaging Playbook to give suppliers guidance on improving the recyclability and sustainability of their packaging portfolio. It summarizes many of the details of the APR Design Guides for many common packages and helps companies identify which packages can be converted to a more recyclable format and how to enhance the recyclability of packages (4).
As part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment, as well as the U.S. Plastics Pact, signatory companies commit to make 100% of their plastic packaging recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025. To make sure all their packaging can navigate the recycling system and return the highest value, companies should not just aim to use materials that are accepted but strive to achieve a “preferred” recycling status in accordance with the APR protocols.
Every company should have a process to review recyclability of packaging and to advance innovations to help its packaging be fully recyclable. For example, Johnson & Johnson recently demonstrated this type of improvement by switching from pumps containing detrimental metal springs to flip-top caps on small HDPE bottles of liquid soaps and pledged to continue to work on designing a recyclable pump for larger sizes with the goal of introducing recyclable pumps within a few years (3).
Enabling the circular economy: Enhancing product recyclability can enable many of the benefits of a robust circular economy, including reductions in resource extraction, GHG emissions, costs, waste, and environmental pollution.
Reduced risk: Retailers are placing increased scrutiny on the recyclability of packaging in their stores. Also, proposed regulations in some U.S. states indicate greater pressure on non-recyclable packaging, and enhancing recyclability now may reduce the risk of future end-of-life business costs.
Work with suppliers: Suppliers are rapidly innovating and working to create new solutions for more sustainable packaging. There are constant advancements in barriers, inks, and adhesives, for example. Consider working with suppliers to ensure their products meet all of the APR Design® Guide criteria.
Inspire innovation: Consider supporting open design challenges to bring new ideas to the table or implement existing ideas to new products/applications. Include a comprehensive review of recyclability in new package design or the package-change process.
Released in 2022, Walmart’s Circular Connector connects companies with sustainable packaging resources, suppliers, and innovative design ideas to shift to more recyclable formats or substitute to other materials. Companies that develop innovative packaging, components, or supply sustainable packaging materials can submit their product information to Walmart through the intake form. Walmart partnered with the U.S. Plastics Pact’s Sustainable Packaging Innovation Award program to recognize certain innovations.
Celebrate improvements: Leverage the storytelling capabilities of the marketing department to communicate changes to customers. Improvements in recyclability can be signaled with on-pack messaging as well as in other channels. Seek communications methods that will resonate with consumers.
Better sorting technology: Advancements in sorting at MRFs can help segregate packages that are currently seen as detrimental, leading to higher-quality bales of the preferred materials.
Policy changes: Policy interventions that promote the use and increase the value of recycled polymers can incentivize producers to develop products with end-of-use considerations. Policies encouraging the use of design guides for plastics in the development of packaging, such as providing discounts for design guide-compliant products within a producer responsibility system, would also encourage beneficial design for recyclability.
Industry communication: Subject to antitrust laws and regulations, industry players can communicate to:
develop new polymer production and packaging designs in conformity with products from recycling and sorting technology companies;
co-develop re-extrudable inks and new printing processes with ink manufacturers to enable brand differentiation without the contamination associated with inks, additives, and mixed polymer use; and
streamline materials and packaging formats. A prime example was the switch from PETG to extrudable PET (EPET) when PETG was identified as a contaminant in the recycling stream, causing many companies to innovate and create EPET as a prime alternative, especially in clear bottles with handles (5).
(1) World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and McKinsey & Co., “The New Plastics Economy,” 2017. (Link)
(2) APR Design Guides. (Link)
(3) Sustainable Brands – J&J overhauls pumps to aid recycling. (Link)
(4) Walmart’s Recycling Playbook (2019). (Link)
(5) Plastics Technology – “Why Blow Molders are Switching to EPET.” (Link)
(6) Walmart’s Circular Connector (2022). (Link)
(7) U.S. Plastics Pact’s Sustainable Packaging Innovation Award (2023). (Link)