Why Your Favourite Design Packaging Might Be a Recycling Nightmare

The number one rule: keep it to one material.

A quick summary

  • It’s recommended to design packaging with one type of material only.
  • Mono-material packaging refers to a packaging product that is made from only one type of material. 
  • Using one type of material can be a challenge for some products which require more protection through packaging.
  • Our guiding principles for a circular economy for plastics can be addressed via ‘Closing the Tap’ (reuse and reduce the demand of single-use packaging) and ‘Closing the Loop’ (introduce recyclable packaging).
  • Recycling helps to ‘Close the Loop’ for a circular economy in packaging products.
  • The more complicated a packaging design is, the more effort needed and the lower the chance of it being recycled. 
  • With innovation and a conscious understanding of the recycling process, more packaging can be made using just one material.

When it comes to design packaging, there is no lack of creativity in combining aesthetics with functionality. It must be able to keep the product safe until it reaches the buyer’s hand and at the same time, eye-catching.

Yet in the quest to design the most creative yet functional design to house the products, here’s one of the most important questions on disposal that is often abandoned: is the packaging contributing to a recycling nightmare?  

The UK Recycling Association named five types of packaging that are the hardest to recycle, of which two brands were singled out. Pringles took the top position and Lucozade Sport – an isotonic sports drink as the second.

Why is that so? Pringles was singled out as its iconic packaging is actually made up of five different components and materials.

The cylindrical-shaped packaging is made up of a plastic cap, a metal tear-off lid for longer shelf life, a cardboard sleeve lined with foil to keep the chips extra crispy for longer period of time, and lastly, a metal base.

This packaging has been dubbed a recycling nightmare for very good reason but little has been done about it.

For the industry, the answer may lie in mono-materials.

Packaging is a necessity with a function to serve, especially in protecting or preserving the product it is containing. The material chosen for the packaging has to satisfy the basic function of protecting the product. But with more and more functionalities needed as the product gets increasingly sophisticated, it is not always possible to only have one material that satisfies all the requirements.

As a solution, laminations, coatings and additives are thrown into the material formulation. Think about print labels being added into the mixture to communicate product information and enhance branding. This is how a simple packaging purely used to contain a product can become a concoction of differing materials.

Eliminating plastic pollution one step at a time

‘Circular economy’ has become the big buzzword for businesses, regardless of the industry.

The idea of a circular economy for plastic is simple: to keep plastics as plastics for as long as possible by extending the lifespan of plastics beyond a single use.

For businesses to systematically tackle single-use packaging along their supply chain, we need to move away from the linear model of producing, buying, and disposing to a circular one. 

There are numerous players involved in the lifecycle of one product. From raw materials suppliers and logistics companies, to manufacturers, distributors, consumers, and disposal, it may not be sufficient when only one of the players from the upstream steps in with a ‘circular product’ without involving the other players from the downstream to ensure that the loop can truly be closed. 

Over the centuries, the human-environment relationship has grown from a circular one to a linear one. What our ancestors used to take from nature, it returned to nature at the end of life. Yet from a material scientist’s perspective, civilisation developed because of newly synthesised materials that allow technology to flourish – materials that nature is unable to assimilate in a short period of time.

Nevertheless, just as technology has started out in a linear manner, our collective effort can drive it back to a circular one as we learn to be better stewards of materials.

Recycling cannot deal with mixed materials, even for plastics

No material is as difficult to differentiate as plastics.

Vector plastic resin codes icons. Garbage waste sorting recycling icons. Reduce reuse recycle. Plastic bottles and other plastic materials. Vector plastic icons illustration.

A transparent plastic can be PET, PVC or even PS.

However, these plastics cannot be mechanically recycled together and have to be separated. Otherwise, the quality of the recycled PET (the plastic with higher recycled value) will be downgraded or even contaminated beyond reusability.

Unfortunately more often than not, this segregation comes from human intervention in developing countries before the actual recycling can take place. 

Should the packaging consists of only one material, a lot of these steps can be avoided. This also means that the pathway to recycling will be shorter and more efficient! 

Take the example of a recent innovation from Mondi: a flexible stand-up pouch that uses only 30% of the material needed to make the original rigid bottle of the same volume. Plus, it is fully recyclable.

Mondi’s FlexiBag is fully recyclable thanks to a packaging that uses only transparent LDPE, including the spout and cap, which are normally made of a different plastic type from the body. 

What was said to be impossible a few years ago when the idea was first mooted, Mondi was able to create packaging that is fully recyclable. Even labels (another pain point in recycling and affecting the packaging’s recyclability) are made from LDPE and attached without adhesive.

Plastics have great flexibility when it comes to engineering the material into the required packaging properties. Yet it is the same flexibility that results in the proliferation of plastic types that goes beyond the seven types of plastics mentioned above. While certain industries like automobile or electronics would benefit from advanced plastics, comparatively, packaging for everyday items does not require the same level of complexity.

With innovation and conscious understanding of the recycling process, more packaging can be made using just one material. 

Hit play as my colleague Aqeela debunks common myths on packaging materials!

For the consumers, this is the time to start asking what goes into your favourite packaging. Consumers also have the opportunity to demand for more ambitious policies that call for a legally binding treaty on plastic pollution

If you are a business owner, you can start by making informed decisions on packaging materials with our Alternative Materials Tool. You can also contact me and the team at markets@wwf.sg. Our team would be happy to explore how WWF can help your business to reduce the use of single-use plastic. 

Much can be done by packaging design engineers to mindfully create packaging for ease of recycling.

And mono-material can be a great place to start.

If you like reading this, also hear more from this man who spearheads sustainability at Marina Bay Sands, top 10 questions on microplastics answered, and the stranded sperm whale found with a staggering 5.9kg of plastic items in its stomach.

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