Recyclability by Design

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Recycling is complex. The waste-industry is growing, developing, investing and changing so how do Brand owners ensure their packs are designed for recyclability? Are you making the right choices for the environment and your brand. Are you ready for the new packaging reforms? Are your packs the best they can be? In this guide, you will be able to see if you’re making the right sustainable choices for your packaging.

Recyclability by design

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

They show how to design recyclability into packaging from the beginning of your development. They provide simple and effective options to improve pack recyclability allowing you to make good choices early on in your development.

This article provides an overview of ‘Recyclability by Design’ to allow you to pack your designs with sustainability.


The principles:

material design options for recyclability

One at a time:

Components made of one plastic can be mechanically recycled, have a higher post-use value and are more commonly collected and recycled.

  • Which Plastic: Plastics most commonly used, collected and recycled: PET, PP and PE.
  • Exceptions: Sometimes there are good technical reasons to use more than one type of plastic in a component i.e. product protection.

In summary

Use just one plastic and make sure your lids and labels will separate if made from different types.


Colourful choices:

Brands use colour for identification. However, adding colour to plastic significantly lowers its post-consumer value meaning it’s likely to get ‘down-cycled’ and definitely not turned into a new piece of packaging. Colour added to plastic can never be removed and it will discolour all plastic it is mixed with when recycled. Recycling companies try to separate coloured and clear plastic but it’s not easy to control.

Special colours of note:

    • Colour Options for Recylability

      Black plastic: known as a problem colour for recycling as it is difficult to detect at sorting facilities. New black plastic formulations + upgraded detection systems are improving the situation. However, even detectable black plastic will be ‘down-cycled’. Try to avoid it where possible.

    • White plastic: equally problematic, even low levels of white pigment discolours everything it is mixed with. Detectors at reprocessing facilities also struggle to tell the difference between white and clear PET,  increasing the chance 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 bottles used to be coloured white and the lids were dense blue, green or red. The bottles are now natural and the lid colours are a hint of what they used to be, but the identification of the product by the consumer is just as clear. Milk bottles are now made of a natural, colourless HDPE, meaning they are designed perfectly for recyclability. In the future, the intention is that the lid will be colour free too with just the label to identify the milk meaning its design will be further optimised.

In Summary

Plastic without any colour has the highest post-use value, the widest variety of end uses and the highest likelihood to go back into making a new packaging item. Aim to avoid adding colour or if necessary, include colour at the lowest possible levels.



designing for minimal residue for recyclabilityDesign your pack to be emptied. Your consumer will thank you for getting all the product they paid for and no product contamination improves recycling. Product residue needs to be removed before recycling to prevent contamination of the new plastic made. If the consumer can do this, all the better.

Design features include:

            • A wide neck: allows the consumer to get the product out of the pack.
            • Inverted pack: gravity helps draw the product out.
            • Non-Stick Additives*: additives help the product slip out of the pack. 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.

In Summary:

Make it easy to empty and clean to make it recycle ready.


Multi-Layer Packs:

multilayer film

Where required, more than one layer of plastic is used in a pack, such as a pouch. This is usually to improve product shelf-life but sometimes these packs are chosen for pack weight reduction. These multi-layer packs can’t be recycled easily. They are normally sent to landfill. They’re sometimes collected for ‘Energy Recovery’ i.e. burned for energy. There are some schemes which can chemically recycle these packs but these are few and far between. They might be collected through a scheme such as TerraCycle who charge the brand for recycling their packs or Enval who recover the aluminium layer.

Important note: a small % of a barrier material, that will not interfere with the recycling of the main plastic, may be allowed – check with your supplier

In summary

The recyclability-by-design guides suggest using the thinnest layers possible in such packs to minimise its impact at end of life.


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.

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