For decades, it was common practice to estimate packaging recycling rates based on the volumes or weights sent to material recovery facilities (MRFs), rather than the amount of that material that could actually be recycled. This method made it seem as though efforts to increase recycling were on the rise, but the truth is that only a small fraction of packaging materials are actually reprocessed into new products of similar quality. Could this approach do more harm than good by perpetuating myths about recycling?
Recyclability depends largely on local circumstances, including the infrastructure that exists for collecting, sorting, and recycling waste. To improve recycling rates, packaging should follow general design-for-recycling (DfR) guidelines. Even when the packaging elements are fully recyclable, the composition of waste can make it difficult to be effectively sorted at MRFs. Therefore, decisions made in the design stage of packaging play a critical role in determining its potential to be recovered and returned to the supply chain, ultimately replacing virgin materials. While there is not yet one global standard, several free resources for designers have emerged in different regions. For example, The Association of Plastic Recyclers Design Guide Overview
and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO partnered Circular Design Guide
Even in countries that are leaders in their recycling efforts, a significant percentage of packaging materials are disposed of through incineration (with or without energy recovery) or landfill because the packaging wasn’t designed for recovery. As packaging has become more technical, it often results in multiple materials or layers, adding complexity to the recycling process. Plastic yogurt cups with removable paper sleeves and aluminum foil seals, for example, are not always separated by consumers before they are placed in the recycling bin.
Globally, circularity for packaging still has a long way to go. A new report by The Last Beach Cleanup
revealed that plastic recycling rates in the United States have fallen from 8.7% to close to 5%
over the last four years. While the recycling rates in the United States are largely stagnant, some countries are progressing more quickly. The European Union’s ambitious Single-Use Plastic Directive (SUPD) targets are driving change throughout the system – reducing waste and increasing circularity with well-designed policies that lead to high-performing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for packaging.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): Vital for packaging circularity
Effective EPR policy supports the establishment of systems that prioritize a resource hierarchy, incentivize eco-design, and utilize reliable measurement protocols. It creates a framework that reduces reliance on virgin materials by emphasizing resource efficiency and quality.
The waste hierarchy is an internationally accepted standard that aims to keep materials at their highest and best use by establishing an order of waste management options from most to least preferred based on the ecological and social impact. TOMRA’s resource hierarchy expanded on this concept to prioritize methods that employ the least carbon-intensive processes and differentiate between open-loop and closed-loop recycling. To ensure materials are continually turned back into new products of the same or similar application, closed-loop recycling systems (e.g., bottle-to-bottle) offer the most sustainable opportunity for increasing circularity beyond reuse.