It’s almost 50 years since the first Earth Day, and the introduction of the universal recycling symbol. Designed by Gary Anderson, this now famous logo came out of a contest to create an identity which represented the paper recycling process. It has since gone on to become one of the most visible symbols of the recycling movement. As recycling has evolved, so too has the number of signs and symbols on our packaging. Today, there are Green Dots, plastic resin codes, the Tidy Man symbol, and in the UK, the OPRL (on-pack recycling label). While all of these have helped raise consumer awareness and encourage people to take responsibility for their own recycling, we’re still a long way from a perfect world.


Paying the price for plastic

In the last few years, landmark programmes, like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, have reignited the global debate about packaging, and in particular, how we deal with plastic. According to the 2016 New Plastics Economy report, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, while 40% goes straight to landfill. Despite our efforts, a staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection and this has had a significant impact on our economy and the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean. By 2050, it’s estimated that there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.

Why 100% recycling might not be the only answer

Switching to a system in which 100% of the products we used could be recycled would clearly have a positive impact. However, recycling may not be the magic bullet we all expect it to be.

The number of times plastics can be recycled for example is limited, and recycled plastic is often only suitable for lower value applications, like plastic benches. What’s more, according to a GreenBiz study, consumers are often unwilling to change their behaviours, or simply don’t understand how to recycle or return packaging after use.

While collecting packaging at the end of a product’s life poses major challenges, it remains an essential part of the recycling process. However, an alternative solution may lie in the development of environmentally sustainable products.

As a 2015 Nielsen Global report showed, 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products (This number jumps to over 70% among millennials). However, brands must tread carefully. In a world where being a sustainable business is increasingly important, brands must also be mindful of the dangers of greenwashing, by avoiding misinformation and controversy related to sustainability.

Are reusable bags worse for the planet?

To progress, brands also need to consider how and when they use terms like reusable, sustainable and recyclable. While these phrases help to raise consumer awareness, they can be counterintuitive.

‘Reusable’ cotton bags for example, could actually be more damaging to the environment than the traditional HDPE plastic bags. When a study conducted by the UK Environment Agency (UKEA) compared different bag types and their impact, under typical patterns of use and disposal, the authors found that cotton tote bags had the greatest impact on global-warming, since they require more resources to produce and distribute. More importantly, the report concluded that consumers looking to reduce their carbon footprint would be far better to use plastic grocery bags and then reuse these as bin liners.

Food miles remain an equally contentious issue

Produce which is air freighted can often be more environmentally-friendly than local produce, which is purchased out of season and stored or grown in heated greenhouses. An everyday example would be an apple flown in from New Zealand, which is more environmentally-friendly than a British apple kept in a cooling room for months. The most sustainable approach to this problem would be to eat apples when they are in season locally.

Compostable packaging can also be a confusing area for consumers, and in particular, the difference between home compostable and industrially compostable packaging. For example, an ‘industrially compostable’ pack of crisps will only decompose in specific conditions and in purpose-built industrial facilities. So, it isn’t surprising that consumers are left confused.

A perfect example of this kind of misinformation occurred ten years ago, when Coca-Cola and GLACÉAU Smartwater introduced bottles made with PlantBottleTM material. These bottles include up to 30% bio-based mono ethylene glycol (MEG) in the production of the final polymer (PET), and while they are fully recyclable, they are not biodegradable. At the time, this led some consumers to falsely believe that the PlantBottleTM bottles could be thrown anywhere and safely ‘recycled’ by nature.

Glaceau Smart Water

50 years on from the first Earth Day, and it’s fascinating to reflect on how our world, and our approach to recycling has evolved and changed. However, the steps we take in the next half century are even more crucial.

As consumers, we clearly need to reduce, reuse and recycle more of the products we buy.

However, as brand builders and design agencies we have the added responsibility of evaluating which packaging is necessary for future generations.

We also need to ensure that this packaging remains an important brand communication tool, to educate consumers on recycling and sustainability.

Author, Martina Schwarz