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Defining Recyclable Packaging

There is much discussion in the media about the war on waste and what materials should be discarded in our recycling bins. What is needed is a standardised way of defining recyclability so brand owners can provide consistent messaging to consumers.


Recently the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and Plastic Recyclers Europe (PRE) released a definition for what constitutes recyclable plastic packaging. This article takes this definition a few steps further and addresses all consumer packaging, not just plastics.

Defining recyclability is a complex topic given the complexity of: the recycling industry, which includes collection, recovery and reprocessing; and the packaging industry, which continues to introduce new materials and designs to meet the requirements of brand owners and consumers including: improved shelf life; greater convenience; ease of opening and resealing; and lower lifecycle impacts.

The circular economy has become a major driver for change resulting in global corporations and the Australian Environment Ministers committing to having all packaging 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. It is for this reason the Packaging Recyclability Evaluation Portal (PREP) has been warmly embraced by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), OPRL UK and their member organisations during the first half of 2018 as it provides an evidenced based design guide for brands.

What is PREP?

PREP is unique in that it simulates the complex recycling sector, from kerbside collection through to end markets, so designers can enter packaging specifications and be provided with immediate feedback if the design is not recyclable, explaining the reason why.

The PREP is a dynamic assessment platform that has evolved from a simple assessment framework over 10 years ago. Whilst it will become more comprehensive and accurate over time, the premise of the tool will remain the same – a pack is only recyclable if it passes all tests that reflect the nuances of the recycling eco-system. As new materials or combinations are launched on the market, new tests can be added to reflect their end of life fate when discarded at kerbside/curbside.

The generic tests within the PREP consider:

  • How widely the material is accepted at kerbside
  • Size of the packaging item relative to the MRF screens
  • Whether the item is 2 or 3 dimensional
  • Fate of 2D rigid items on bounce conveyors etc, based on their ‘specific pressure’ g/m2
  • Presence of hazardous materials in the contained product

Additional material specific tests are included in the tool, as presented below:

Glass
Contamination
Tint
Opacity
Label type
Label size

Plastic
Contamination
Compatability
Label type
Label size
Specific gravity
Additives
Bond type
Additives
Bond type

Steel
Contamination

Aluminium
Contamination
Rigid v foil

Paper
Contamination
Residual product
Pulpability proxy*
Ink types

Having conducted these tests on a pack design, PREP generates a report for each nation the product will be sold in (currently covers Australia, New Zealand and United Kingdom) and for each Separable Component, the items discarded separately by the consumer.

The report advises how widely the kerbside access level (KAL) is for the primary material plus a technical recyclability result, which has three levels:

  1. Technically Recyclable
  2. Technically Recyclable with Lost Value
  3. Not Technically Recyclable

This approach to defining recyclability indicates that some recyclable packs will be more recyclable than others. By combining the KAL and the technical recyclability result, an Overall Result is reported, which can then be used to select what on-pack label can be applied for each Separable Component.

So, as you can see, there are a myriad of factors that need to be considered when defining the recyclability of consumer packaging, but at least brand owners now have this all in one location, which is called PREP.