Recyclability by Design

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Recycling can be complex even for packaging professionals. The waste-industry is in a state of flux as it grows, develops, invests and learns. So how do Brand owners ensure their packs are designed for recyclability? Are you making the right choices for the environment, your brand and to meet the suite of new packaging reforms? Are your packs are the best they can be? In this Recyclability by Design guide you can see for yourself if you’re making sustainable choices for your packaging design.

Recyclability by design

We can all build recyclability into our packaging designs. Several leading organisations have provided guidance on how best to achieve this:

They share guidelines on how to design ‘recyclability’ into packaging at the design development phase. These guides show how simples choices can effectively improve recyclability and give brand owners the ability to understand their choices early on in development.

This article provides you with a quick guide for easy digestion on ‘Recyclability by Design’ so that your brand can develop innovative designs with a sustainable credentials.

The principles:

material design options for recyclability

One At A Time:

Use just one material per component. Packas that are one material or easily separated allow for easier mechanical recycling. Components made of one material have a higher post-consumer value, are more sought after and so more commonly collected and recycled.

  • Which Plastics: Plastics most commonly used, collected and recycled: PET, PP and PE.
  • More than one?: Sometimes there are good technical reasons to use more than one type of plastic in one component. When this happens, choose plastics of different densities that will separate in the mechanical recycling process.


Colour choices:

Brands colour their packaging for identification. However, adding colour to plastic significantly lowers the post-consumer value of the plastic meaning it gets ‘down-cycled’ and definelty not used as a piece of packaging again. The colour you add to your plastic can not be removed and its presence will discolour all plastic it is mixed with when recycled. the recycling compamies try to segregate coloured and clear plastic but its not so easy to control.

Plastic recyclate without any colour has the highest value and the widest variety of end uses and has the potential to go back into packaging. The ultimate goal is to either avoid colouring components completely or include colour at the lowest levels possible.

Special colours of note:

    • Colour Options for Recylability

      Black plastic: widely publicised as a problem colour for recycling as it is difficult to detect at recovery facilities. New formulations and upgraded detection systems are improving the situation. Even if detectable colours are used, it will still be ‘down-cycled’.

    • White plastic: this colour is equaly problematic. Even at low levels, white pigment strongly impacts the colour of everything it is mixed with. With PET especially, detectors at reprocessing facilities struggle to differentiate between white and clear plastic, so increasing the likelyhood that white contamination happens.
    • Print: avoid printing directly onto natural plastic. Print can also contaminate the natural, colour-free, plastic waste stream.

Case Study

Milk bottle lids are a great case study for reducing colour levels. Previously lid colours were a dense blue, green or red. More recently, the colour has been significantly toned down but the identification of the product by the consumer is just as impactful. Milk bottles are typically made of a natural, colourless HDPE, meaning they are designed perfectly for recyclability. In the future, the intention is that the label alone will be the milk variant identifier meaning its design will be further optimised.


Food Residue:

designing for minimal residue for recyclabilityFor best recyclability, design your pack to allow full product removal. Your consumer gets better value for money, your product’s embedded CO2 is not lost and this aids recyclability. Product residue has to be removed before recycling to prevent contamination of the new plastic made. If the consumer can do this, all the better. Design features that enable this include:

            • A wide neck: the consumer can get the product out of the pack more easily.
            • Inverted: the pack to be turned upside down so gravity can help draw the product out.
            • Non-Stick Additives*: additives help the product slip out of the pack. These are especially useful with products that typically stick to the pack sides i.e. ketchup.

*Please note, these additives should not negatively affect the recyclability chain. Check with your supplier.


Multi-Layer Guidance:

Where performance properties are required, a barrier layer may be required making it incompatible with recycling. We see this issue with multi-layer plastic films which are not currently compatible with recycling in Europe. Instead, they are typically collected for ‘Energy Recovery’ and burned for its embedded energy. The guidance here is to use the thinnest layers possible to have the lowest impact at end of life.

Chemical recycling plants are slowly entering the European market. These plants can process multi-layer films but they are not yet well established. Also, the energy usage of chemical recycling plants is very high and there are limitations on the feedstock which mean not all film constructions can be handled.

    • Multi-Layer Recycling Options:
      • Enval collects film with an aluminium barrier layer and recycles the aluminium element.
      • Terracycle set up a way for you and your consumers to collect ‘difficult-to-recycle’ plastics and recycle them for you, but at a price.


Closures Choices:

This guidance covers closure liners, cap sleeves, and seals.Closure options for recyclability

    • Cap liners: avoid where possible. Where used, it should not leave residue on the cap once removed and made of compatible material for the container recycling stream in cases where the cap doesn’t get removed.
    • Compatible plastics: The cap material should not interfere with the recyclability of the container to avoid potential contamination: caps can be left on or the tamper-evidence ring may remain when the pack is recycled.
    • Metal caps: These should be avoided. Metal caps on plastic bottles are difficult and costly to remove and metal detectors will dump large amounts of plastic with even small amounts of metal detected. In addition, caustic washes used in some recycling plants can alter the chemical composition of metal and make it a contaminant recycling.
    • Sleeves: decorative or ‘tamper-evidence’ shrink sleeves should be designed to be easilty removed. Full body sleeves should have instructions to remove sleeve before recycling. Where the sleeves is a different material to the component underneath it can be incorrectly sorted for recycling. Also, heavily printed sleeves or those with lots of dark print mean NIR cameras can’t detect the plastic underneath. This makes the pack more likely not to be recycled.


Label design

Label design for recyclability
spot adhesive preferred for recyclability

To achieve the best recyclability, minimise the adhesive coverage of the component.

    • Label adhesives: Water-soluble and hot-melt alkali-soluble adhesives are preferred for ease of removal. Permanent label adhesives can contaminate the plastic and spoil its future use.
    • Wrap-around labels: it’s better to have adhesive at limited points.
    • Paper labels: fibres from paper labels can mix with plastic components in recycling and remain in the plastic when its made into new components. Surface defects or pin-holes in the blow-moulding of new packs can occur. Use water-soluble adhesives for easy removal of paper labels.


There is much to consider when designing your pack to be the most sustainable, recyclable and circular it can be. There are potential pitfalls and unintended consequences along the way. If your business needs some additional guidance and support to make your pack recyclable by design, Circle Packaging are available to help. Contact me via the website, email or call directly and together we can deliver your packaging project.

2 thoughts on “Recyclability by Design

    • says:

      Hello Nick, thanks for reading and for your comment.
      The links are now working and I welcome all feedback. If there is anything you would like to know more about, please share here or contact us – all the details are available on the website.
      Many thanks

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