Sustainable Packaging Series: Recycling


We have previously covered compostable and bio plastics which are both within the scope of FMCG businesses to tackle sustainability, as is the use of recycled plastic in packaging. In this issue we will focus on the role brands can take in encouraging recycling. This is particularly challenging when the back-end recycling systems are not currently in their control.

The use of recycled plastic in packaging is far outstripping the use of compostable or bioplastic, and with good reason as it keeps plastic in a circular system rather than ending-up in landfill, the oceans or burnt. It comes with technical challenges in terms of quality and performance and consumer challenges in terms of cost and hygiene perceptions, but it is the right thing to do.

However, if people don’t recycle in the first place then all this effort in material change is wasted. In many affluent countries like Denmark who are already at 90% recycling rates and closing the gap to 100% we can see that with the right attitudes, incentives and infrastructure, closed loop ambitions can be realised. However, in other economically or politically challenged countries recycling is way down their list and woefully inadequate. It is those countries that host the well-publicised 9 polluting rivers that are causing so much of the ocean’s problems. Global corporations are well aware that their logos are in full view of every polluted beach blog and survey, but is it within their power to do anything about it?

Making your bottle out of recycled plastic does raise awareness, and made specifically from ocean plastic hits as the heart of the matter from a communication perspective, but it is not actually tackling the core challenge of increasing recycling - let’s not let it get it into the ocean in the first place. We have helped Danone tackle recycling challenges in countries, like Turkey, who have low recycling rates, and we have utilised local activation programmes to do this.  However, instigated by individual brands, whilst being good intentioned, hardly make a dent in the problem. Walker’s Crisp’s initiative to post back their empty packs only returned 0.01% of the plastic they produced annually despite half a million packets being collected over three months.

 Every train of thought and enquiry at Echo comes back to the question: how do we recycle more and how can we help as designers in this challenge?

From a structural packaging perspective, we are helping our clients’ make better material and production choices for example, move to mono material packs which are simpler to recycle.  We can use graphic design to shift away from non-recyclable materials, like the use of black plastic and clear windows. However, an area where design can play a really significant role is in developing a workable system of recycling advice for consumers on packaging. It is utterly confusing at the moment with a plethora of symbols that don’t mean anything to anyone and often default to telling you to check with your local recycle centre.

 The UK government have recently published their Resources and Waste Strategy that talks about creating a new system for labelling, but is a country specific system the right way to go? Would it be far better to encourage a universal approach?  This by consequence will have to be far more flexible, adaptive and integrated that the current UK OPRL type label system is capable of achieving. Whatever language they speak, how informed they are, how clearly their vision and where they live, a consumer needs to be able to understand, whether or not it has a label, how to recycle a piece of packaging. No corporation, government or organisation could develop that on their own. We also need to make it future proof – recycling systems are developing and spreading, consumers are coming on board and brands are constantly exploring new materials.

Could it be that the most likely route to success would be though the development of a collaborative, open-sourced system similar to the way the Linux software developed back in the 90s? A flexible repeatable system that could be adopted and adapt by any interested stakeholder without losing its clarity and consistency. As system that spans physical, printed and digital worlds. We are exploring the possibilities and would love to know your thoughts?