Is recyclable packaging a waste of time?

In the Tamebay Packaging Position Paper published earlier today, I wrote “Some retailers will accept the additional costs to source recyclable packaging but in truth their efforts and expense may largely be wasted if there’s not a simple convenient way for the end consumer to recycle on receipt“.

There is a deeply ingrained belief that simply using recyclable packaging is a good thing but the reality is that, if there’s not an easy way for consumers to identify recyclable packaging and a convenient method of recycling, it will simply end up in landfill.

Consumer recyclable packaging issues

The most stunning example of recyclable packaging I’ve recently seen is from a major manufacturer, McVitie’s, on their multipack Penguin biscuits product. The advice reads “Send this wrapper to TerraCycle and they will turn it into something new!” along with the relevant web address. That all sounds highly admirable (or would be if there wasn’t a picture of a penguin tossing the wrapper into a litter bin right next to the recycling advice – I’m pretty sure McVitie’s must suspect that that’s what the average consumer will do).

(For those who want to recycle your McVitie’s wrappers, you’ll need to go to the TerraCycle website and search for your nearest drop off point. Then separate your trash into ‘The Cracker and Biscuit Wrapper Recycling Programme’ acceptable waste and non cracker and biscuit wrapper waste and drop it off. The collection retailer will then pop it into a box and ship it with a free UPS label to TerraCycle.)

McVitie’s is just one example of recycling madness as it’s asking more than the average consumer will be prepared to do. Whilst I don’t know anyone who doesn’t profess to care about the environment, there are few that will actively go out of their way to recycle. Recycling needs to be easy and this extends to product packaging and shipping packaging.

Ecommerce recyclable packaging issues

Amazon send me yards of Pro Pak’R air cushions whenever I order from Amazon Pantry. Air cushions are a great form of void fill as they’re mainly air (which is totally environmentally friendly) and the plastic part doesn’t add much weight to parcels. Amazon have chosen to use the Pro Pak’R recyclable air cushions which is admirable and printed on each cushion is the message “PLEASE RECYCLE” (Even the print is made from waterbased ink).

This is where the environmental cycle breaks down as there is no indication of how the plastic waste can be recycled or where it can be disposed of. All I’ve been able to establish is that my local council kerbside waste collection won’t accept it with my other plastic recycling and that there is precisely zero information on the Pro Pak’R website as to how to recycle their products. Most consumers will have given up far before getting to the Pro Pak’R website and there is very little point in having a product extolled as 100% recyclable if the only bit that’s recycled is the air within it.

How recyclable is your product and ecommerce packaging?

Recognising that using recyclable packaging is only half of the story and that it is ineffective without enabling consumers to recycle with a minimum of effort, how recyclable is the packaging that you use? Will consumers easily recycle it or will your supposedly recyclable packaging simply end up in landfill?

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I wouldnt say recycled/recyclable packaging is a waste of time per se, but these are some horrific examples. 1 million people in the greater glasgow area, and one biscuit recycling facility between us. on the outskirts of the city. it's going to cost me about £4 in petro to get there and back. they put them in another box, which probably only gets used once. then they ship it 400 miles via UPS truck. - that all sounds bloody fantastic for the environment. 3kg of carbon footprint to recycle 100g of biscuit wrapper. bravo.

james • 30th May 2018 •

What is needed is a joined-up approach to re-cycling. 1. Packaging made from recyclable materials that are clearly marked. Incentives for manufacturers to use recycled materials in packaging and to minimise packaging volumes. 2. A standardised recycling system throughout the UK, or at least one for each country within the UK. 3. An education programme that helps people to put the right items in recycling.

Darren • 31st May 2018 •

there's already fairly standardised systems, though their idea of "standardised" is moronic. the void fill Chris has photographed is certified to EN13427, for example. standardised recycling certification one would assume, we recognise EN numbers as things like that. but does anyone EVER know what ANY of them actually are? it would be a lot easier for consumers if it was "certified completely recyclable" or "barely recyclable" or "not a chance of recycling this" for example. EN13427 is just gibberish, even when you look it up, it's not for you, you're not supposed to understand the content or meaning of EN13427, you have to find a translator to tell you what EN13427 actually means, so why bother printing it on the packaging for consumers? once you find a translator you'll discover that EN13427 means. the product must be EITHER recyclable, OR reusable, OR incinerated with a low calorific output, OR biodegradable or OR does not give off any heavy metal residues or contain any harmful or dangerous substances. So maybe you're just supposed to burn it? or it's fully compliant with EN13427 because you could wear it as a hat? or because this piece of plastic doesn't give off heavy metal deposits? whole thing sounds like tiger repellant to me. my lunch is probably certified to EN13427. so yes standardisation would be nice, but only if they standards are useful to people, rather than being purely salesman's waffle.

james • 31st May 2018 •

I'm talking about standards for collection of waste, instead of some counties having recycling for only some plastics while others have a wider range. For example some places recycle film based products such as plastic bags whereas others don't. If waste collection was standardised, ie every county provided recycling for the same plastics then producers could confidently put on their packaging. "can be recycled in the UK" or 'if variation by country "can be recycled in England and Scotland". For example if every council re-cycles PVC, then all PVC packaging could be marked as recyclable. If all councils recycled composite PVC & Cardboard packaging the same then again people could be advised to recycle it. But at the moment some can and some can't so producers can not tell consumers that the package can be recycled. As a result some will throw it away as they are not sure, others will contaminate the recyclable waste with items that are not recycled by their local authority because they assume that because it is plastic and cardboard it can be recycled.

Darren • 31st May 2018 •

all the focus seems to be on materials. . if handling and handling systems were more friendly with more care taken in handling packaging could be reduced and less damaging to the environment

northumbrian • 1st June 2018 •