Designing for recycling
Unsure about that acronym? Need help assessing packaging recyclability? Curious about that logo or label? Look no further! You’ve found the right page to learn about designing for recycling.
Packaging materials & DfR guidelines
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), a clear, durable, and lightweight polymer, is widely used for product packaging such as soft drink bottles and containers due to its eco-friendly properties. PET is a semi-crystalline polymer with excellent chemical resistance and mechanical properties.
These guidelines are considered applicable for bio- or fossil- based PET.
Polyethylene (PE) is a versatile and lightweight plastic that comes in various forms, including High Density Polyethylene (HDPE). It is widely seen in packaging applications due to being a strong, rigid, and chemical-resistant plastic material and can be used for milk jugs, detergent bottles, and grocery bags.
The differing densities and molecular weights of HDPE, LDPE, and LLDPE result in distinct properties, with HDPE being more rigid and strong. Other versions of polyethylene also exist, tailored to specific applications and requirements.
These guidelines are considered applicable for bio- or fossil- based PE.
Polyethylene (PE) is a versatile and lightweight plastic that comes in various forms, including Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), and Linear Low Density Polyethylene (LLDPE). These are widely used in packaging applications due to being flexible, lightweight, and moisture-resistant plastic, often used for plastic cling wrap, produce bags, and squeezable bottles. These are subcategories of PE and have lower density when compared to HDPE, making it more flexible and less rigid.
The differing densities and molecular weights of HDPE, LDPE, and LLDPE result in distinct properties, with LDPE being more flexible and pliable, and LLDPE offering enhanced puncture resistance and flexibility compared to LDPE. Other versions of polyethylene also exist, tailored to specific applications and requirements.
These guidelines are considered applicable for bio- or fossil- based PE.
Polypropylene (PP) is a heat-resistant and durable plastic used in food packaging like yoghurt containers and microwave-safe food trays. It is a semi-crystalline polymer with a high melting point, making it suitable for high-temperature applications. Rigidity in polypropylene plastics can be related to their thickness and grade. These are stiff, strong, and impact-resistant materials used for packaging applications such as bottle caps, closures, and storage bins.
These guidelines are considered applicable for bio- or fossil- based PP.
Polypropylene (PP) is a heat-resistant and durable plastic used in food packaging like yoghurt containers and microwave-safe food trays. It is a semi-crystalline polymer with a high melting point, making it suitable for high-temperature applications. Flexibility in polypropylene plastics can be related to their thickness and grade. These are pliable materials used in packaging applications like plastic bags, cling film, and flexible pouches for food and beverages.
These guidelines are considered applicable for bio- or fossil- based PP.
Polystyrene (PS), a lightweight and versatile plastic, can be expanded (EPS) or solid (HIPS). EPS, or styrofoam, is used for insulation and packaging, while HIPS is used for disposable cutlery, CD cases, and yoghurt containers.
These guidelines are considered applicable for bio- or fossil- based PS.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a versatile, durable, and chemically resistant plastic material. It is used in various applications such as pipes, vinyl siding, and blister packaging for consumer products. PVC can be rigid or flexible depending on the addition of plasticizers.
No Design for Recycling Guidelines are currently available for PVC.
Residual waste is often locally non-recyclable waste, such as heavily soiled packaging, broken glass, ceramics, and disposable diapers, is placed in the residual waste bin and typically sent to landfills or incinerated for energy recovery.
The definition of materials which qualify as residual waste can differ from country to country, often depending on the local capabilities of collection, sorting, and recycling systems.
Derived from wood pulp and similar sources, paper and cardboard are versatile, biodegradable, and recyclable materials used for a wide range of packaging purposes. Paper is commonly used for wrapping, labels, and bags, while cardboard is typically used for boxes, cartons, and other forms of protective packaging. Their susceptibility to moisture and limited durability can pose challenges in recycling applications.
Ferrous metals are metals which contain iron, with steel being the most common, and are used in food and beverage packaging, such as canned goods, jar lids, and bottle caps, as well as in construction and automotive industries. These materials are generally magnetic.
Non-ferrous metals are metals without iron content, primarily aluminium but including tin and copper. These are often lightweight, corrosion-resistant, and recyclable. Aluminium is commonly used for beverage cans, foils, and food trays.
Beverage cartons are a type of multi-layered packaging for liquid products, composed of fibres (generally 75%), plastic ( 20%), and aluminium ( 5%). They are often used for packaging milk, juice, and other beverages, and are commonly known as Tetra Pak or gable-top cartons.
Glass is a recyclable and reusable material often made from silica, soda ash, and limestone. Glass is widely used for packaging food and beverages, as well as various household items such as jars and bottles. Its transparency, chemical inertness, and impermeability make it an ideal choice for preserving product quality, alongside its ability to be recycled with limited loss of quality.
Bio-based plastics are derived fully or partially from biological resources, such as plants or renewable biomass, and help reduce dependence on fossil resources. Although bio-based plastics do not necessarily guarantee biodegradability or compostability, assessing their environmental impact involves considering factors like land-use, carbon, and the life cycle of the material.
No specific Design for Recycling Guidelines are currently available for Bio-based plastics.
Please use the material specific Design for Recycling Guidelines found on this page if you are interested in design specifications for Bio-PET, Bio-PP, Bio-PE, and Bio-PS.
Biodegradable plastics break down into natural materials, such as water, carbon dioxide, and biomass, under specific conditions at their end of life through the action of microorganisms. These plastics, which do not indicate the raw materials used in manufacturing, can be made from biological resources or fossil raw materials. Their recycling potential depends on the availability of appropriate facilities and infrastructure for collection and processing.
No Design for Recycling Guidelines are currently available for Biodegradable plastics.
Compostable plastics are a subset of biodegradable plastics decompose into nutrient-rich soil under controlled conditions, typically in industrial composting facilities. Derived from biological resources or fossil raw materials, these materials must be collected separately from traditional recyclables to ensure proper treatment.
No Design for Recycling Guidelines are currently available for Compostable plastics.
Type of collection
Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) refers to the everyday items and materials discarded by the general public in an urban area. This includes household waste, commercial and institutional trash, and sometimes construction debris.
MSW typically comprises a mix of organic matter, plastics, paper, glass, metals, and other materials.
Refers to the collection of recyclable packaging made of Plastics, Metals, and Beverage Cartons (PMD) (also called Drink cartons). Common across Europe, these waste materials are sent to sorting centres to be separated into dedicated waste streams.
Dedicated to Paper & Cardboard waste, each country defines its own fibre-content threshold, which indicates the minimum percentage of fibre packaging must contain to be accepted. Thresholds range from 50% (France, Spain, Sweden) to 95% (Germany).
Specific to Germany, this waste stream stands for Paper, Paperboard, and Cardboard (PKK in German). Developed due to Germany’s high-quality paper & cardboard packaging requirements, it demands a minimum of 95% fibre content. Packaging with lower fibre content is sorted separately and considered recyclable to a certain extent (downcycling applications due to low-quality input).
This collection combines recyclable waste, including PMD packaging (plastics, metals, beverage cartons) and paper & cardboard packaging. Deployed in a limited number of European countries (France, the United Kingdom, Greece, Ireland, etc) and is more common in developing countries.
Also known as kerbside collection, this system involves collecting waste from containers placed at citizens’ doorsteps.
Citizens bring their pre-sorted waste to dedicated containers shared by a neighbourhood in this collection method.
Recycling system terminology
A policy principle that extends producers’ responsibility for their products throughout the entire life cycle, particularly focusing on the post-consumer stage. This is often enacted via eco modulated fees by PROs who are given agency by national bodies.
A system in which consumers pay an additional, visible deposit for beverage packaging and can reclaim the deposit upon returning the packaging to an approved collection point. These systems can be publicly or privately managed.
An organisation that helps producers fulfil their Extended Producer Responsibility by managing the collection, recycling, and disposal of products on their behalf.
A specialised facility where collected recyclable materials are sorted, processed, and prepared for shipment to manufacturers who use these materials to create new products.
A recycling system in which all recyclable materials (such as paper, plastic, glass, and metal) are collected together, rather than being separated by the consumer. The mixed materials are then sorted at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).
A recycling system where recyclable materials are separated into two categories, usually paper products in one stream and containers (such as plastic, glass, and metal) in the other. This separation is done by the consumer before collection, leading to a cleaner and more efficient recycling process.
The process of repurposing waste materials into new products with reduced quality and functionality, often resulting from the degradation of material properties during recycling. When recycled materials lose some properties or become degraded by the recycling process, they cannot be fully reintegrated into their original applications. Consequently, these materials undergo downcycling, where they find use in alternative, valuable applications, such as repurposing recycled material for construction or other industrial sectors. While downcycling contributes to resource conservation, it may not offer the same level of sustainability as closed-loop recycling, which maintains the material’s original quality and function.
A recycling system in which waste materials are collected, processed, and used to create new products of the same type, thereby minimising the use of raw materials and reducing waste. This is namely the case for PET bottles recycled into new PET bottles.
A waste management system in which households and businesses are charged based on the amount of waste they produce, incentivizing waste reduction and increased recycling.
Countries with mature recycling infrastructures have well-established and efficient waste management systems in place. They often achieve high recycling rates, incorporate advanced sorting and processing technologies, and implement comprehensive waste management policies, such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Deposit Return Schemes (DRS). Additionally, they prioritise waste reduction and resource conservation through public education and awareness campaigns. Examples of countries with mature recycling infrastructures include Germany and Belgium.
Countries with developing recycling infrastructures have made progress in establishing waste management systems but may not yet achieve the efficiency or recycling rates seen in mature systems. These countries are actively working to improve their recycling capabilities, often through the implementation of new policies, technology adoption, and investments in waste management infrastructure. Public awareness and education around recycling may still be expanding. Examples of countries with developing recycling infrastructures include China and Canada.
Countries with limited recycling infrastructures often face significant challenges in managing waste, resulting in lower recycling rates and higher levels of waste disposal in landfills or through uncontrolled methods. These countries may lack well-developed waste management policies, adequate infrastructure, or public awareness about recycling. Investments in waste management systems and recycling technologies are typically limited, and the implementation of progressive policies such as EPR and DRS is rare. Examples of countries with limited recycling infrastructures include Colombia and Ivory Coast.
How do we assess the recyclability of packaging?
Assessing the recyclability of packaging relies on evaluating the chance packaging has to be successfully processed through the 4 key steps of recycling: collection, sorting, reprocessing & application.
Collection: is there a collection system in place for this specific packaging material?
Sorting: will the packaging end up in the correct material stream at the sorting centre?
Reprocessing: will the packaging be transformed into reprocessed material without hindering the process and/or the quality of the material?
Application: does a solution exist that accepts the reprocessed material and reuses it as virgin material?
At CIRCPACK, we strongly believe in a practical and operational approach to recyclability. Therefore, we consider a packaging recyclable if it positively answers the following questions at each step of the recycling process.
Want to ensure that your packaging is recyclable?
For country-specific codes, please refer to the individual Country Reports.
RIC (Resin Identification Code)
The RIC logos only provide you information with the type of polymers used in the packaging. It does not inform you on the recyclability of the packaging.
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