Recyclability of Plastic Packaging

By: Berlin Packaging Specialist
Date: June 21, 2022

 

When it comes to recycling plastic packaging, there is more to think about than just pack material. Lack of infrastructure, a package’s color, finish, label application, and other components like closures and seals can impact recyclability. Plastic recycling is an important strategy to increase the availability of alternative resin feedstocks that contribute to more circular systems.

What Qualifies as Recyclable?

At Berlin Packaging, we are dedicated to improving the lifecycle of plastic and supporting a more circular economy. That’s why we are members of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), an international trade association representing the plastics recycling industry, committed to the success of plastics recycling. According to the APR and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an item is considered recyclable if it can be collected, sorted, reprocessed, and manufactured into a new product or packaging. And this must be done economically and at scale. Certain packaging may not meet all these criteria so the APR has identified four categories of recyclability:

  • Recyclable/APR Preferred: These packages are likely to pass through the recycling process with the potential of producing high-quality post-recycled material.
  • Detrimental to Recycling: Some packaging features have technical challenges for recycling, but they are grudgingly tolerated and accepted by most recyclers.
  • Renders Package Non-Recyclable: These packages cannot generate marketable end-product, so recycling facilities will ultimately discard them.
  • Requires Testing: There is an unknown impact on recyclability, and more testing is required using one of the APR testing protocols.

Which Plastics Are Recyclable?

The most widely recyclable plastics are PET, HDPE, LDPE, Polypropylene, and mono-plastics. PET and HDPE have close to a 30% recyclability rate in the United States. Polypropylene, while recyclable, only has about a 3% recyclability rate due to China’s new waste importation standards. Mono-material flexible packaging - like plastic bags and wrappers - can be recycled through in-store drop-off programs, where available.

What Plastics Are NOT Recyclable?

While the above plastics are recyclable, modifications made to the base material can limit or prevent recyclability:

  • Color: Recyclers value plastic for its transparency and clarity. Opaque and metallic colors are less valuable and therefore detrimental to recycling. Black and dark blues are considered not recyclable.
  • Multi-Materials: Multiple types of plastics can’t be recycled together due to the different ways resins react when melted down for recycling. This means packages made with more than one material – like many toothpaste tubes, food pouches, and soap/lotion pumps - are not recyclable.
  • PET Barrier Bottles: Currently, there is no APR standard for testing PET barrier bottles which means they cannot get recyclable approval.

Beyond the container, other components that make up a package can negatively impact recyclability. Foil seals and paper labels are detrimental to recycling. High-coverage labels like full shrink sleeves may cause the NIR sensor to misidentify a package’s material. Pressure-sensitive labels require testing for recyclability.

Consumer Confusion Also Plays a Role

Based on the latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, Americans recycled less than 6% of plastic waste in 2021. There is a lot of consumer confusion around what can and can’t be recycled and how to prepare a package for recycling. This can lead to “wishcycling,” when consumers put non-recyclable objects into the recycling bin, hoping they’ll get recycled. It also leads to recyclable products unnecessarily ending up in the landfill.

On-pack messaging about a package’s recyclability can make a difference. The How2Recycle program aims to help educate consumers through a standardized labeling system that communicates recycling instructions consistently and transparently. The use of this system is beneficial for consumers and can also be a selling point with increasingly eco-conscious retailers.

Have More Questions?

Berlin Packaging created a cheat sheet to help our customers quickly understand the recyclability of different materials. Our sustainability experts can help determine the recyclability of your packaging, identify ways to improve recyclability, suggest a range of sustainable packaging solutions, conduct lifecycle assessments, develop messaging strategies, and more.