Less than one third of the plastic packages are well-recyclable

May 21, 2021

The share of well-recyclable plastic packages has hardly increased over the past 7 years. A meticulous study into the designs of plastic packages currently present on the Dutch market has revealed that 27% is well recyclable. Wageningen University & Research has established this in a study commissioned by NVRD. Packages need to be correctly designed for recycling to progress towards a more circular economy. ‘The share of well-recyclable packages must and can be raised’, according to Marieke Brouwer.

The most promising is the group of packages of which the designs can be adjusted in a fairly straight-forward manner to well-recyclable alternatives. This could increase the percentage of well-recyclable packages with  a staggering 29%. Addressing their designs would signify a major step forward. To this group of packages of which the designs can be easily-mended belong packages with incorrect labels, caps, adhesives, etc. We notice a growing awareness of and interest in design-for-recycling at manufacturers, but also observe that the business incentives are not aligned, yet. In a few cases, marketing will have to step back to render the packages better recyclable. Hence, packages should do without bright, large labels and also with less convenience options such as anti-drip valves, hand pumps and spray guns.

Difficult to address packages

Roughly a quarter of all packages are difficult to redesign-for-recycling. This relates to two subgroups of packages. Firstly, the packages that are too small to be sorted and recycled. And secondly, packages that cannot be simplified easily, since their complicated structures are vital to maintain the shelf-life of food products and prevent food loss. To this subgroup belong packages for coffee, pre-baked breads, cheese and meat products, etc. A suitable recyclable alternative is currently lacking for these product-packaging combinations.

Finally, there is a significant group of plastic packages (18%) for which there is no recycling technology available that can process these on a large scale, like PET trays (in which for example meat and fish are being packed) and PS packages. In case these recycling technologies will develop further in the coming years, these packages will then also be assessed as recyclable. Nevertheless, these packages will also have to be designed for recycling once these processes have been developed.

Black rigid packages have diminished

The current study is an update from a study of four years ago. Compared to the previous study the share of black rigid packages has dropped and the shares of PP and PET rigid packages have increased. This shows that the fast moving consumer good industry has made the first step to render plastic packages more recyclable. In the current study, the recyclability of packages is studied in greater detail and design aspects of individual packages are also considered. These comprise the size of the label, packaging dimensions and the presence of components or materials that can contaminate the recycled plastic.

Concerted action of all incumbents

Previously Wageningen University & Research has also studied the value chain of plastic packages. These studies have shown that the design of the plastic packages largely influences the sorting and recycling processes. The quantity and quality of recycled plastics is therefore determined to a large extent by the recyclability of the packages on the Dutch market.

The results of this study are focussed on the Dutch plastic packages. However, the issue is much broader and applies to all European countries with similar packages and recycling systems. Currently, only 27% of the plastic packages on the Dutch market is well-recyclable. The European recycling target for plastic packaging is 50% in 2025 and even 55% in 2030. With the current packages this target could be attained by collecting and recovering as much as possible. For the largest part of the recycled plastics produced from these packages the market demand is, however, limited. These recycled plastics are primarily suited for thick-walled, less demanding products. To produce more and more pure recycled plastics – that are suited to produce new packages and consumer products – the plastic packages need to be designed for recycling.

Already in 2018, Marieke Brouwer called upon all value chain actors to cooperate and consider the performance of the whole value chain from design, production, use, collection, sorting to recycling. This message is still valid today. “With only the efforts of the civilians to better separate out their plastic waste, we will not reach our circular ambitions.” Substantial synergy can be attained when chain actors fine tune their interventions with each other. Since the fast moving consumer good industry is at the start of the value chain, the influence of their design decisions is also paramount to the performance of the entire value chain. Therefore, it is critical that as much as possible packages placed on the market are well-recyclable.

Report in Dutch, but include an English abstract.

English summary report 'Recyclebaarheid van Nederlandse kunststofverpakkingen'