Optimizing Packaging for Curbside Recycling: Dos, Don'ts, and Design Strategies

December 05,2023 Category: Packaging Development, Sustainability
According to EPA data, more than 30 million tons of packaging waste was sent to U.S. landfills in 2018, the most recent year for which data they’ve published data. While the data demonstrates steady improvement from the 43 million tons sent to landfills in 1980, there is still much room – and a drastic need – for improvement.

As brands increasingly look for ways to reduce their environmental footprint, recycling has taken a central role in combatting the packaging waste issue. Good packaging design and well-thought-out material choices play a crucial role in ensuring that products are not only protected during transit but also have a sustainable end of life.

Curbside recycling programs are the most effective option currently available in the U.S. and represent an opportunity for brands and consumers to work together to reduce the amount of packaging waste that ends up in landfills. The success of curbside recycling depends on the recyclability of the packaging materials used by manufacturers and consistent participation from consumers.

There are a variety of ways packaging teams can optimize curbside recycling opportunities.

Dos for Optimizing Recyclable Packaging:

Use Recyclable Materials:
  • DO use materials that are commonly accepted in curbside recycling programs. These materials often include paper, cardboard, glass and certain types of plastics (e.g., PET and HDPE).
  • DO clearly label packaging with recycling symbols and instructions to help consumers identify recyclable items and the best way to dispose of them.

Minimize Mixed Materials:
  • DO minimize the use of mixed materials (e.g., packaging with both plastic and metal components) as they can be challenging to recycle.
  • DO optimize ease of separation when mixed materials must be used (e.g., plastic caps on glass bottles) to facilitate recycling.

Opt for Mono-Material Packaging:
  • DO aim for mono-material packaging whenever possible. Mono-material packaging consists of a single type of material, making recycling more efficient.
  • DO select packaging designs that are easy to disassemble, such as cardboard boxes with minimal adhesives.

Reduce Excess Packaging:
  • DO avoid over-packaging. Excessive packaging not only generates more waste but can also be challenging for consumers to manage in their recycling bins.
  • DO choose appropriate packaging sizes that match the product's dimensions, reducing the need for unnecessary materials.

Don'ts for Optimizing Packaging:

Avoid Non-Recyclable Materials:
  • DON'T use materials that are not accepted in curbside recycling programs, such as certain types of plastic (e.g., PVC) or mixed-material packaging.
  • DON'T rely on black plastics, as they are often not detected by recycling sorting machines and can end up in landfills.

Avoid from Complex Packaging:
  • DON'T use complex packaging designs that are difficult to disassemble. Multi-layered or laminated materials can complicate the recycling process.
  • DON'T use excessive ink or labels that hinder the recycling of paper and cardboard packaging.

Refrain from Excessive Wrapping:
  • DON'T over-wrap products in plastic film or shrink-wrap. These materials are often not recyclable and contribute to plastic pollution.
  • DON'T use excessive tape or adhesives on packaging, as they can impede recycling efforts.

Avoid Dark-Colored Plastics:
  • DON'T use dark-colored plastics, as they are harder to sort and recycle. Clear or light-colored plastics are generally preferred for recycling.

Say No to Hazardous Materials:
  • DON'T use packaging materials that contain hazardous substances, as they pose a risk to recycling workers and the environment.

Additional Considerations:

Collaborate with Recycling Facilities:
  • Work closely with local recycling facilities in the markets where your products are distributed. Learn about their process to identify opportunities to optimize packaging for easy recycling.

Educate Consumers:
  • Include clear recycling instructions on product packaging to guide consumers in proper disposal practices.
  • Educate consumers about the importance of rinsing containers and removing any non-recyclable elements before placing them in the recycling bin.

Optimizing packaging for curbside recycling is a collective responsibility that involves both businesses and consumers. By adhering to the dos and don'ts mentioned above and considering the recyclability of materials and packaging design, brands can significantly reduce the environmental impact of packaging waste from their products. Sustainable packaging not only benefits the planet but also aligns with consumer preferences for eco-friendly products. Embracing these practices can lead to a more sustainable future and a healthier planet for generations to come.

If you’d like to learn more about specific solutions to optimize recyclability for your packaging, get in touch. Adept’s sustainable packaging experts can help you develop recyclable packaging solutions tailored to the unique needs of your products and distribution environment.