Next time you are in a supermarket, take a long hard look at the packaging that surrounds you. It doesn’t take much scrutiny to notice that most of it has been designed to attract you, the consumer.

What is less visible to the uninitiated, is that, despite most brand’s sustainability claims, very little, if any, thought has gone into the actual design for optimum recycling.

Scratch below the surface of most packaging and you will find that any recycling features rarely run very deep, and those that are bolted on are unlikely to be clearly thought through.

It is a sad fact that most packaging we see has been designed with the primary purpose to engage with the consumer, protect the contents within, and tell a strong brand story.

It is time to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: The current recycling levels of most packs and bottles are woefully insufficient.

According to a recent report by The PEW Trusts, Breaking the Plastic Wave, even our most updated recycling commitments are inadequate for the scale of the challenge we face if we are to avoid drowning our oceans in plastic and overheating our planet.

The report estimates that by 2040, 29 million metric tons of plastic per year will have entered the oceans from land. That is equivalent to 50kg of plastic per meter of coastline worldwide. Because plastic remains in the ocean for hundreds of years and may never biodegrade, the cumulative amount of plastic stock in the ocean could grow by 450 million metric tons in the next 20 years.

So whilst brand owners may feel risk-averse, the risk to our planet far outweighs the risk of trying something different. And, in fact, with careful thought, re-designing a pack or bottle to be as recyclable as possible should improve its quality and reduce its cost. Let’s deep dive into this.

To cap it all

It might seem like a small thing but over the last 30 years, more than 20 million bottle caps and lids were found during beach cleaning activities around the world. We have lost track of how many bottle caps actually enter our oceans and wash up on shore, yet these caps are among the 5 main ocean trash items that are deadly to sea life.

Here are the changes that would solve this deadly issue:

In an ideal world, all caps would never leave the bottle. By tethering caps, the total volume of caps being recycled would be boosted to provide more material for recycling back into caps. Current commercial designs for tethering caps to bottles are increasingly being light-weighted and would be a minor cost to the drinks companies but a huge benefit to the environment.

Currently, most PET bottle caps are made of either HDPE or Polypropylene, depending on the brand-owners choice. Separating them into their relevant polymer types is a nightmare and, as a consequence, they end up in low-value applications as a mixture or in a landfill due to their size and detachment from the bottle.

There is no reason why we can’t adopt one polymer type per country to simplify the separation problem.

If all caps were either natural or white we would actually capture, recycle, and re-use all caps ad-infinitum. Instead, we are literally drowning in a sea of multi-colored caps.

Surely, the consumer in each of us does not need a color-coded cap to recognize our favorite beverage. Wouldn’t we prefer a cleaner planet?

All label, no glue
Moving on down the bottle to the label, Evian recently made a bold sustainability statement with their label-free bottle. It may seem like a minor detail, but the fact that they have kept the pink cap still leaves room for improvement. Were Evian to create a totally “naked” bottle, from cap to base, their statement and their action would be even more impactful.

Certainly, we need to ditch the pressure-sensitive adhesive labels that contaminate the recycling streams and opt for stretch labels or shrink sleeves. The aggressive glues are particularly an issue for recyclers of PET and HDPE packaging and some options, like self-peeling labels, are already on the market. Going further, we need to ensure that these labels don’t bleed inks. The labels themselves need to be readily separated and recycled to avoid any unwanted waste.

None of the above suggestions should impact the brand’s visual cues – these are technical details that can be easily addressed and would make a huge difference to overall recycling streams.

Back to basics
Of course, it all starts with the actual container. Take an HDPE milk bottle, for example. Many resin manufacturers will use the minimum required stabilizer that prevents reactions that can lead to polymer degradation during processing. In turn, this impacts the quality of the recycled material especially once we enter the circular economy where plastics will go through the loop many times, particularly as the level of recycled content reaches beyond 50%.

If instead of being minimally-stabilized, and the bottles were designed for constant recycling, the plastic quality could be maintained and this would improve recycling rates. In many cases, the stabilizers need to be present during their initial processing as this is where oxidation reactions can occur that can trigger later impacts through gel formation or photochemical reactions during outdoor exposure.

Color free
As for the rainbow of colors brands are currently deploying, this only goes to show how little deep recycling features in the design remit.

Colored plastic packaging is much harder to recycle economically than clear plastic since there is little demand for the resulting “recycling grey” that we get when we mix all these colors. Unscrambling the colors is potentially possible via sorting equipment but the multitude of color variants means that it is impossible to produce a color that would suit any brand-owner.

The ironic fact is that, in many cases, the colored plastic is often covered by a large label as a means of marketing, making the package below invisible. It might as well be grey or natural and save the pigment costs and improve the final recyclability!

There is no doubt that color is one of packaging designers’ key tools yet the impact on a pack’s recyclability is huge. Tomorrow’s ideal bottle would be either transparent, white, or self-colored grey, and shrink sleeves would be used to ensure the brand is loud and clear.

Tomorrow’s bottle

The fact is that were we to design the type of highly recyclable bottle I have described above, we would end up with a very close replica of a brand’s original product. Only an expert would be able to notice the difference. So is it cost that is creating a roadblock?

A 360-degree recyclable bottle should actually cost less to produce, and here is why:

Starting with the caps produced of one polymer type in clear or white would mean a greater opportunity to recycle caps back into new caps that would reduce the need for new virgin resin.

Shedding the colors of the actual bottle would vastly reduce masterbatch costs and all the design cues would be focused on the label (with self-peeling or dissolvable glue) or stretch-sleeves. Recycling yields would increase making high-quality recycled material more plentiful and less expensive. And the actual brand recycling story would be authentic.

These types of design details would greatly contribute to the total recyclability of a pack and actually only require a change in mindset rather than a massive upheaval.

Challenging the status quo is a matter of adopting good design principles that embrace recyclability to the core.

Ultimately, this is not about creating a green image but rather about developing a deep green and lighter footprint that is sustainable.

Wrapping up

There is no reason not to make these changes. We now have the cutting edge technology to identify, sort, and decontaminate post-consumer waste – all we need is for brands to embrace the notion that what we currently deem ‘recyclable’ is not enough.

Working out good design principles for recycling requires brand owners to step up and voluntarily take responsibility for every facet of their packaging. After all, we all share the same planet, so it is time to make a real stand for how we look after it and shed the fallacy that our current recycling efforts are sufficient – because they are not.

Cover image source: Javardh