Blog header reading, "How to Design for Recyclability."

How to Design for Recyclability

Recycling is a complex subject and it’s dictated by market demand, rules and regulations. The success of recycling is largely dependent on the end user. However, the brand plays an important role in making packaging easily accepted into our curbside recycling programs by designing for recyclability. According to the Consumer Brands Association, ten of the top twenty five largest CPG companies have committed to achieving 100% recyclable packaging. With several others making similar claims.
  • P&G committed to achieve 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2030. 
  • Nestlé has committed to 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025. 
  • Colgate-Palmolive will achieve 100% recyclable, reusable, or compostable packaging for all categories by 2025.
Perhaps your company has recyclability goals too. The next question is, how do you design a package for recyclability?

Preferred Materials

Materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and reprocessors prefer certain materials over others for a variety of logistical and market reasons. Understanding what materials and designs are preferred by recovery facilities then using them in your packaging can increase the recycling potential. The ASTRX report by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and The Recycling Partnership and The Association of Plastics Recyclers Design Guide are both valuable resources on this topic.

Preferred Colors

Color plays a role in the recycling potential of a package. The Association of Plastics Recyclers Design Guide provides insight on the use of colors in packaging. Clear, unpigmented is the most preferred by MRFs and reprocessors because of its wide array of end-of-life markets. However other colors are also noted as preferred by MRFs. These include, but are not limited to, transparent light blue and green depending on the material. Color may also play an important role when considering Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes across the world. You may be penalized for selling products that use dark or opaque colors.


Mono-material packaging is easier to recycle because the existing recycling stream is designed to easily deal with them. Mixed packaging such as a paperboard container with a plastic lid are cited as problematic for reprocessors and MRFs. Separating out materials is very difficult to do by hand, if not impossible when dealing with multi-layer formats. The process to separate materials requires a special machine which increases costs for MRFs and reprocessors. Avoid using more than one material whenever possible and educate consumers on the proper way to dispose of your packaging.

Shrink Sleeves and Flexible Packaging

Shrink sleeves and flexible packaging technology have greatly expanded available packaging designs, and in some cases, can significantly reduce overall environmental impact. If your design must include a shrink sleeve, we recommend using shrink sleeves that meet the criteria for ‘preferred’ under APR’s design guide. Shrink sleeves cause problems for MRFs and reprocessors if they are not removed effectively during the recycling process. This can cause contamination in the recycling stream which then decreases the value of the blended output on the end market. Similarly, flexible packaging wreaks havoc at processing facilities, often getting stuck in the machinery causing the plant to shut down lines in order to clean the machines. We recognize that a flexible package may be better than its rigid alternative over the course of its entire life span. Therefore, try to evaluate the environmental impact of your packaging from a holistic viewpoint. If you use a flexible package, consider utilizing a How2Recycle label to communicate with consumers how to properly dispose of the package.

Size Matters

Size matters when it comes to recycling. As a good rule of thumb, anything smaller than a credit card will get lost in the recycling process. Small components such as bottle caps can get stuck in the recycling processing machines. Consider tethering caps to bottles or displaying clearer recycling instructions on the package.

Recycled Content

A reliable stream of recycled content is a direct reflection on the recyclability of packaging in today’s system. High value materials are necessary to recover, reprocess, and remanufacture new packaging with post-consumer recycled (PCR) content. Many companies have goals regarding PCR content percentages in their packaging which speaks to the growing awareness of sustainability. However, the availability and cost of PCR content is already an issue and may become worse as more companies use it without systematic changes to increase supply. Generally, adding PCR content within a package that is not designed for recyclability only exacerbates the dwindling supply since it is unlikely to be reprocessed back into PCR content. Instead of a circular model where materials are used continuously, adding PCR when the package is destined for the landfill stops the cycle and traps high value material in the current linear paradigm. Consider adding PCR content where it makes sense in your packaging portfolio, into packages that are designed for recyclability so that you effectively add to the circular economy.

Improvements to the System

The United State’s current recycling system isn’t perfect. There are a lot of improvements that can be made, in the meantime we recommend using How2Recycle labels to effectively communicate proper disposal mechanisms with consumers. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to change the recycling system and won’t happen overnight, nor is it the sole responsibility of one organization, company, or individual. We encourage you to get involved with cross-industry organizations to create new solutions. Examples of such organizations include the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC), Climate Collaborative (CC), and One Step Closer (OSC). Start designing with end of life in mind. EcoImpact-COMPASS, the leading sustainability and LCA solution tailored to products and packaging, displays real-world end-of-life data for your design team. Quickly compare design alternatives during the development process and help make informed, data-driven decisions. Trayak has been helping leading brands of all sizes make data-driven sustainability decisions for over 10 years. If you would like to learn more about our tools and services please contact us.

Add a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment