Do customers know how to recycle your packaging?

Recycling is becoming a bigger priority for organisations and consumers. In spite of this, customers are often confused about how to recycle packaging.


Businesses are facing an increased demand to balance their packaging requirements with market competitiveness and environmental stewardship. This growing demand is a huge priority for sustainability managers, corporate responsibility analysts and social impact directors everywhere, especially in regards to recycling.

The methods of handling the end-use of product packaging is top-of-mind for many, and with good reason. Packaging accounts for 42% of landfill content worldwide, and remains a chief cause of environmental harm. The final fate of packaging depends on consumers and their disposal and recycling practices.  Recycling, the enduring topic from the ’80s, ’90s and the early 2000s, is more relevant than ever. Recycling faces new challenges, which calls for new thinking from the global community.

Consumers are confused about packaging

Millions learned the “Three R’s” (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) in school through massive national and community education efforts in the UK, US and beyond. Most individuals know that recycling is the process of converting waste into new materials and goods. There is widespread acceptance of sorting bins for plastic bottles and newspapers in airports, malls and offices.

So you would think that most consumers would have a good handle by now on recycling. New studies reveal this is not the case.

Recycling rates vary around the world.  US residents recycle 34% of the waste they create, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A number of other countries around the world have developed strong recycling programs, where many of their national recycling rates are over 50%.

Causes of recycling confusion

Many consumers want to do the right thing. The problem is that in many cases consumers are uncertain about what to do or are recycling the wrong way. They are confused about how to recycle their packaging.

The causes of recycling confusion include vague labeling, a lack of standardization and sparse disposal instructions on packaging. As an example, the ASTM International Resin Identification Code for plastic containers and packaging has assisted in improving collection rates, but it was designed with recycling centers and processing facilities in mind. The majority of consumers are unfamiliar with this system, and find these coding systems complex or misleading. Some symbols appear the same as the universal recycling symbol but do not necessarily indicate recyclability

Additionally, the types of materials accepted by curbside recycling systems range widely, depending on countries and municipalities. Uncertain consumers, who are unsure of what their local recycling program accepts, tend to put any material in the recycling bin in hopes that it will be taken, according to Packaging Digest. This can lead to contamination in recycling streams and high costs related to extra labor to remove incorrectly-recycling packaging from processing systems. Multi-component or hybrid packaging causes further headaches. A steep cost is incurred when processors at recycling plants must disaggregate components such as laminate linings, corrugate, foil tops and plastic containers. Frustrated consumers will often throw away hybrid items with no attempt at recycling.  


Packaging in landfills

Landfills in the U.S.

A significant portion of packaging ends up in landfills, and represents 65% of all household trash in the US. It is estimated that approximately one-third of the content of landfills is made up of packaging material that could have been recycled. US residents (5% of the world’s population) produce 40% of global waste. Americans generate about 1600 lbs of waste per person, per year.

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Landfills in the E.U.

 In 2016, the UK generated 222.9 million tonnes of waste, up 4% from 2014. The latest data shows that UK households produced approximately 27 million tonnes of waste in 2017 (roughly equivalent to 902lbs per person). The majority of this waste is food scraps, newspapers, cardboard, glass bottles and plastics.


A portion of this waste is shipped to other countries for recycling and disposal. China has historically been the world's biggest importer of recyclable material until 2018. The country started banning imports of paper and other materials with more than 0.5 percent contamination. This was a standard that many North American and other cities could not meet, causing backlogs of waste and increases in interim landfill usage until new recycling solutions are found. The issue is ongoing, according to The Atlantic.

Designing for sustainability

An empirical study was conducted to determine the impact of design elements on consumer behavior with the finding that decisions by consumers were highly swayed by graphics. Another study concluded that when packaging bears clear recycling labels placed prominently on the front of packaging, consumer confidence to recycle is markedly increased. 

Though we’re not experts in recyclability, we can help make packaging more sustainable by eliminating foam, right-sizing packaging and creating freight efficiencies. For more information on how we can help make your packaging more sustainable, reach out to Billerud today. We are experts in the field of packaging solutions, and work with sustainable partners around the globe. 

Read more about the current state of packaging design and sustainable materials in our eBook, Key Packaging Trends 2019.

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