A comment piece by Sam Jones, Customer Sustainability Manager at DS Smith.

A lack of infrastructure, mixed with consumer confusion, means a lot of packaging isn’t recycled in practice. But just where do the issues lie, and how can brands make smarter material choices to ensure their packaging is recycled? The complexity of multi material packaging Let’s start by looking at the complexity of multi-material packaging and the supporting recycling infrastructure. The actual process of recycling multi-material packaging can be cumbersome, time consuming and expensive; consumers need to segregate, collections need to maintain segregation, and films, laminates or coatings can be technically difficult or prohibitively expensive to remove during reprocessing. There is also a confusion among consumers as to what can and can’t be recycled, as it varies by region. This is fuelled by a lack of a consistent labelling scheme to guide people, and leads to kerbside collection being overly complicated and inefficient. 

First simple step

Lots of food products use a mix of packaging materials, for example card, clear film, and black plastic, not all of which can be recycled. Even if they could, they would need to be separated so that the plastics can be reprocessed separately from the card, which means that the consumer is left to separate the materials themselves. Where possible, brands should look to use just one type of packaging, to ensure the recycling process is made as easy as possible. 

Second simple step

Brands need to balance the demand for aesthetics with a consideration of materials’ recyclability. Black plastic, for example, is an area where companies could instantly improve the sustainability of their packaging. The reasons brands use black plastic over clear options are primarily aesthetic, resulting from a desire to keep up with customer demand for products with a premium feel. But this type of plastic is a challenge to recycle through current technology, as the optical machines that sort plastics for recycling can’t detect the black carbon pigments, meaning that recyclable material can be diverted to incineration, or, even worse, landfill. In this instance, there is no reason that the packaging couldn’t be switched to alternative colours, which is more easily identifiable, and therefore more widely recycled and supported by the existing infrastructure throughout Europe.

The benefits of card

Recycling facilities and the materials that can be recycled vary from country to country but corrugated and paper packaging are ubiquitous. The advantage of paper and card is that it is the most recycled material in the world, and the only requirement for consumers is to ensure that the paper and cardboard they collect for recycling isn’t contaminated by food, or other recyclable streams like plastic, metals, or glass. Paper and card is generally better segregated and consequently the collection and sorting process is much simpler. As a result, 82% of all paper and cardboard packaging is currently recycled in the UK – the highest recycling rate of any material stream – compared to only 44.9% of plastic.   

Moving completely away from plastic won’t always be feasible or desirable, but brands should look to adopt card and paper into their packaging strategies where possible, in order to use existing recycling infrastructure and help remove excess waste in the supply chain. 

A move toward alternative materials 

A trend which looks set to continue is the sizeable move towards alternative packaging materials such as paper fibre-based options. Paper-based fibre moulds are now a popular substitute for polystyrene packaging and, although not widely available or always possible, products such as wood-based fibre bottles are starting to be produced as an alternative to plastic. 

Long-term plastic

That said, it’s important that any changes aren’t just a kneejerk reaction from brands in response to the recent resurgence of the plastic debate. While there is a general negativity towards plastic, it still has a key role to play when it comes to product protection and longevity, for example in the transportation of food, so shouldn’t be automatically discounted. 

Many plastic types can be recycled, but brands need to maximise the recyclability of their plastic products, for example by using one recyclable type of plastic as the basis of their packaging. Smarter brands are incorporating sustainable options into a strong long-term packaging strategy, and are now looking at how they can create 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging. All brands should be focused on moving towards a more circular approach, where the use of raw materials is minimised, waste is reduced, and packaging is designed for reuse or recyclability. We want to play a part in that change, and one of our key long-term targets at DS Smith is to manufacture 100 per cent reusable or recyclable packaging by 2025, in order to help customers and consumers work towards a sustainable future. 

Businesses must adopt a packaging strategy focused on minimising their footprint and improving efficiency throughout the supply cycle and beyond – to the consumers who buy their products – by looking at where material choice can be optimised. By adopting more sustainable packaging solutions, and being selective about how and where plastics are used, brands can work towards reducing waste and increasing the volume of packaging that is actually recycled across Europe.