Technological watch

Four key components of packaging poised to make or break brand owners’ recycling targets

The latest report on the climate crisis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a sobering reminder of the dire consequences if we don’t drastically address the issue of CO2e in our atmosphere. Professor Edward Kosior of Nextek and NEXTLOOPP writes. × The report warns that the window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all is rapidly closing. We will never again have this time, where we know what the situation is so conclusively. This scientific consensus, combined with the fact that the majority of climate solutions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change exist, provides a unique opportunity for us to address the gaps and take action.

Achieving the 1.5 degree limit is still possible so long as immediate action across all sectors occurs. Transitioning from ‘business as usual’ must escalate immediately. The plastics and packaging industry can make a very significant contribution by boosting efforts to reduce the CO2e associated with their sector. Each tonne of recycled plastic saves at least one tonne of CO2. 

In the case of food-grade recycled Polypropylene (FGrPP), an estimated 1.6 tonnes of CO2e can be saved compared with virgin Polypropylene resin. As such a 20 ktpa plant would save 32.000 tonnes of CO2e. The easiest and most direct way to achieve this is to increase the rate of recycling of plastics and packaging as soon as possible.

Whilst this means disruption for an industry that has long-standing and cost-efficient practices that did not consider CO2 emissions, these kind of critical choices and actions will have impacts now and for thousands of years to come. But these actions must be implemented immediately because adaptation options that are still feasible today will become constrained and less effective with increasing global warming.

Which is why, within the context of plastics packaging, we must invest in design of easy-to-recycle packaging that has circularity at its heart with a clear focus on CO2e. Right now if we applied our very best current practices of collecting, sorting and recycling, we still could recover at least 60 percent of our plastic packaging which is a big step forward over what we currently achieve.

Instead of trying to align with what brand owners and supermarkets put back into the waste stream for recycling, we need to go back to the packaging design drawing board and produce packaging that can be recycled simply and productively by recycling businesses. 

We can no longer afford the “luxury” of “difficult to recycle” packaging. By optimising the composition, such as low or no pigmentation, mono-material construction through to readily removable adhesives, labels and inks we can already make an impactful difference. 

With the fate of the world hanging in the balance this is no tall order, so let’s unpack this further. The biggest market for consumer-focused plastics is food packaging - as such food-grade compliance for recycled materials is crucial. To achieve this we must simplify recycling rather than look to over-complex technologies to solve our challenges. 

Without the need to go down any sophisticated, costly route there are four components in packaging that could transform the way packaging is recycled. In the true sense of a circular economy one can only recycle what is put out by the retailers and adhesives, labels, inks and pigmentation limit re-use as food-grade recycled materials and therefore impede true circularity.

 These might seem like small details when in fact all four play a pivotal role in whether a pack is recycled back into high-quality packaging or turned into low-value recyclates or worse, sent to energy recovery or landfill.


The aggressive glues with a range of additives are particularly an issue for recyclers of PET, PP and HDPE packaging as these materials can accumulate in the recycled materials as non-intentionaly added substances (NIAS). Some options such as self-peeling labels that remove the adhesive and the label during washing stages of recycling are already on the market.

Inks & Labels

Going further we need to ensure the inks on the labels don’t bleed into the water used in the washing stages of recycling. The labels themselves need to be readily separated by logical separation steps such as sink/float systems and recycled to avoid any unwanted waste.

Less is more

Coloured recycled plastics have a lower value and are much less likely to be recycled into food-grade packaging due to the colour matching needs for specific packaging. 

Yet, as mentioned earlier, food packaging is plastics ’biggest market so it stands to reason that if we can readily differentiate food from non-food packaging we can have a huge impact on recycled plastics. One simple solution would be to use colours to speed the process up. Pigments are possibly the most contentious, yet easily reversible element of today’s packaging and we need to flip the waywe use them. 

Instead of using colours to tell a brand story and create on-shelf standout, colours could be put to better use if they were to define which category the product contained within belongs to. In this scenario all foods would be contained in natural or white packaging. 

Non-foods would be in pastel coloured packaging that would use a smaller concentration of pigments and all hazardous products would be in black (carbon black or detectable black) plastic. 

Sorting by transparent, pastel and black would simplify recyclers lives as they could use their well-established, accurate and low-cost automatic sorting technology that relies on the Near Infra Red (NIR) and visible light spectrum and cameras for detection.

Now or never

If we focus on these four elements, we will already make great in-roads. What we don’t need is more time-consuming research that is not connected to current problems and tasks that needresolution. We literally don’t have the time. We now need to apply common sense and the effective technologies we already have to hand.

Despite the many good innovations coming on stream, it would be fair to say that the majority of packaging is still being designed to be processed only once and this needs to change. Recycling-friendly formulations are needed and reducing pigments along with recycling-positive labels and adhesives, will have a transformational effect. 

Of course, we also need to enhance collection of recyclable packaging to divert it from leakage into the environment and the growing waste-to-energy destinations. We need to streamline andupdate the numerous administrative blockages stopping effective and safe recycling of food packaging given the advances of technology that have recently taken place. 

Still - we can’t wait for the perfect moment when everything falls into place - we need to keep pushing forward with what we can do today. As the IPCC report points out, apathy is our biggest enemy. If we stand back and observe, every increment of global warming will continue to intensify numerous and concurrent hazards.

 Yet by making simple and cost effective changes we can already make significant differences. We can’t afford to put future generations in jeopardy as they will increasingly struggle to adapt to a far hotter and profoundly different world to the one we currently know.

Back to Search Results

Publication date: 29/06/2023

European Plastic Product Manufacturer

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

The website reflects only the author's view. The Commission is not responsible for any use thay may be made of the information it contains.
Last update: 2022-01-31