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Published August 17, 2020
Published August 17, 2020
Zibik via Unsplash

The recycling and composting of plastics are crucial elements of the circular economy, but they are complex processes that are influenced by numerous factors. The term “recyclable” itself is ambiguous and is contingent upon multiple aspects of packaging, local infrastructure, and the existence of end markets for recycled material. Just because a package is recyclable doesn’t mean it actually gets recycled.

The definition of “recyclable” used by the UN One Planet Network’s Consumer Information Programme for Sustainable Consumption and Production is the one provided by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in its New Plastics Economy Global Commitment: “A packaging or packaging component is recyclable if its successful post-consumer collection, sorting, and recycling is proven to work in practice and at scale.” This definition reflects the complexity of recycling and goes beyond the plastic resin of a package.

Factors that Impact Recyclability of Plastic:

  1. Resin Type: While most if not all plastic resins are theoretically recyclable, resins 1 (polyethylene terephthalate) and 2 (high-density polyethylene) are the most readily and economically recycled ones today. Technologies and programs to recycle other resins exist, but these are limited in practice and scale.
  2. Size, Shape, Color: In places where sorting is done with advanced technology such as optical sorters, items must conform to certain size, shape, or color requirements to be recognized as recyclable. Items that are too small or that do not conform will be discarded as contamination even if they are made out of the correct material.

In countries where manual labor is used for sorting or where there is informal sector collection, certain characteristics can still be helpful in identifying recyclable items. For example, the shape of a plastic bottle or its color can signal whether an item is of recyclable value.

  1. Contamination: The recycling process has a limited tolerance for contaminants. Contamination can be a result of the wrong type of plastic (for example, PP in PET recycling stream), a different material (for example, paper or PLA in PET recycling stream), food or beverage residues, or other materials or foreign objects entering recycling streams. Some contamination can damage recycling machines, which leads to recyclers being cautious about accepting potentially contaminated material.
  2. Additives: The presence of various Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and other potentially toxic substances contained in plastic products has a negative impact on the environment and human health, and these impacts must be considered in all phases of the life cycle of plastic products.
  3. Available Infrastructure: Regardless of how readily recyclable a piece of packaging maybe, if collection or recycling infrastructure is not available where consumers live, then it does not get recycled.
  4. Economics and End Markets: Some plastics are technically recyclable but the economics are unfavorable, and therefore the material is not being recycled.

Brands need to be truly committed to sustainability for real change to happen. They must educate themselves on the complex issues related to the circular economy so they are making an informed decision but, more importantly, so they are not inadvertently “greenwashing” or providing consumers with misinformation. And finally, real change will only happen when brands become activists and participate in fixing the existing recycling infrastructure.

Download the United Nations Environment Program report on Global Mapping and Assessment of Standards, Labels and Claims on Plastic Packaging.


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