Story | 06/27/2024 15:02:31 | 3 min Read time

True or false: Bio-based packaging can’t be recycled

The answer: It depends – and not only on the material.

For a material to actually be recycled, it must be collected, sorted, reprocessed and there must be a market for the recycled material. Additionally, the quality of the material has to be good enough to be utilized as raw material in new products.

Paper and cardboard, for example, have a high recycling rate: over 80 percent in Europe and almost 70 percent in the United States. Paper and cardboard have been industrially recycled for decades, and there is both a wide recycling infrastructure and an established market for recycled materials. However, collecting and recycling systems vary from one country to another.

Bio-based materials with existing recycling value chains, such as plastic made from the pulping residue tall oil, could be recycled via the existing recycling chains. This is one reason why they are called drop-in solutions. Bio-attribution has no adverse effect on their recyclability. 

Some plastics with a bio-based origin, such as polylactic acid (PLA), can technically be recycled. Unfortunately, recycling value chains are not yet installed due to the current small quantity of recyclable material.

For a material to actually be recycled, it must be collected, sorted, reprocessed and there must be a market for the recycled material.

How do I take recyclability into account when designing bio-based packaging?

Many factors have an effect on whether packaging is easy to recycle or not. Monomaterial packaging, meaning packaging made out of a single type of material, can often be easier to recycle than multi-layer material packaging.

It’s important to keep in mind that the most important function of packaging is to provide adequate protection for the product – and this may mean several barrier layers or other finishes are necessary. When designing packaging, it’s wise to choose material that is good enough for the job but not too good, meaning that it is vital to avoid overpackaging and minimise unnecessary layers.

It is vital to avoid overpackaging and minimise unnecessary layers.

Do labels affect recyclability?

Labelling and markings play a key role in determining where the package ends up after the product has been used and if it’s going to be sorted correctly and recycled. The packaging needs to have instructions for recycling that are easy to understand for consumers so that they will know where to sort it. 

Labels need to be designed according to the recycling process: In some cases it’s better that they stick tightly to the packaging and are recycled along with it, and sometimes the best option is to use labels that wash off easily so both the packaging and the label can be recycled into material that can be used again.

Labels need to be designed according to the recycling process.
 

These UPM experts were interviewed for the story: Leena Kunnas, David McCann, Gerd Unkelbach

 

*The term bio-based is used here for all materials that are produced using substances derived from living organisms such as plants (source: Collins Dictionary). Many bio-based or bio-attributed plastics are chemically identical to fossil-based plastic and are not, for example, biodegradable.

 
 
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