Small steps, big consequences: Plastic packaging should become more recyclable

Small steps, big consequences: Plastic packaging should become more recyclable

December 15, 2021
We read an interesting study by Natuur & Milieu about the fact that two-thirds of the packaging in supermarkets is not recyclable. At Brightlands Materials Center, the Circular Packaging team is dedicated to helping companies make their packaging both recyclable and circular.                                                            For this reason, we asked Harold to explain how his program can help companies.

Supermarkets are full of plastic packaging. Producers advertise extensively that their packaging is recyclable or sustainable, yet 65% of the packaging still cannot be recycled or is only partially recyclable. How can this be?

The packaging in use today has been developed over a long period of time and serves several purposes, one of the most important of which is to provide a desired shelf life for the packed product. To ensure this, packaging is often made up of multiple materials. This makes the packaging difficult if not impossible to recycle. Often, developing packaging that is recyclable and offers sufficient protection to the product is no small task (otherwise it would have been done long ago).

In addition, there are still parties in the market who may not yet feel the urgency to look for alternatives. Both the European and the Dutch Plastic Pact have set the goal that all packaging must be reusable or recyclable by 2025. That may seem like a distant point in the future, but really it is not.

The study by Natuur & Milieu* also revealed that more than half of the packaging could be made recyclable with one or two simple design adjustments. If the packaging can be made recyclable with a few simple changes, why are producers not doing that?

Indeed, in some cases it will certainly be the case that the recyclability of a package can be improved through making relatively simple choices. However, it is not always only up to the producers to decide this. Usually, a combination of several parties provide input. In addition to the producers, the buyers, retailers and brand owners, but also we as consumers, play an important role. For example, packaging that is fully printed with a certain print is often much more appealing to buy than a product that features hardly any printing on the packaging. In the first case, the product is either not recyclable or poorly recyclable, and in the second case it is usually much easier to recycle.

Another aspect that is worth mentioning is the total CO2 footprint of a given example of packaging. People often ask why plastic packaging is not replaced by another type of material, e.g. glass or tin, as these are recyclable. While that is often true, it turns out that when the total environmental impact of the packaging is examined, the plastic packaging is actually not that bad and in many cases even much better.

Harold, you have read the report by Natuur & Milieu. Do you think this report will encourage politicians to make stricter agreements with supermarkets and leading brand producers?

The purpose of this report is to encourage packaging companies and customers (retailers, brand owners) and certainly politicians too, to take action to achieve the goals included in but not limited to the Plastic Pact. I therefore expect that this report will encourage politicians to set stricter requirements, as the percentages mentioned are quite alarming and do not indicate that we are going to achieve the goals we have set. For this reason, more guidance from the government is desirable – as long as it is based on the same principles for all packaging materials (level playing field) and supported by correct information regarding the environmental impact.


The Plastic Pact, which was endorsed by many supermarkets, was supposed to be the solution. In practice, this is not the case. Can you tell us more about the Plastic Pact?

The Plastic Pact is an initiative in which companies and other organizations have joined forces with the Dutch government to bring forward a circular economy for plastic products and packaging. Currently, 110 companies and organizations are participants.

The Plastic Pact aims to achieve the following:

Do more with less plastic, to accelerate a circular economy: that is our goal. We have specifically set the following ambitions for 2025:

  • all plastic packaging and single-use plastic products are re-usable where possible and useful, and in any case 100% recyclable
  • a 20% reduction in the use of plastic for single-use products and packaging
  • at least 70% of single-use plastic products and packaging are recycled to a high standard 
  • all single-use plastic products and packaging contain on average at least 35% recyclate and other bio-based material.

More information about the plastic pact.

Fortunately, the analysis by Natuur & Milieu also shows that there is considerable room for improvement. Over half of single-use plastic products can be made recyclable with a simple modification. Examples of this include making a change to the label or the paper wrapping around an item of plastic packaging. The latter sounds like a nice solution.

Making changes to a label and/or the paper wrapper can lead to a clear improvement in recyclability. The change may consist, for example, of applying labels made of the same material as the packaging itself. This is called the mono-material approach. In this case, the label does not have to be removed during recycling because these labels result in much less pollution in the waste stream. This means that the packaging is therefore more recyclable. It is worth mentioning that a water-washable adhesive is important in this context. This leads to less pollution, better quality of the recyclate, and better recyclability.

A loose paper wrapper around product packaging is also a good solution in principle. A disadvantage of this is that the consumer has to remove this wrapper before putting the packaging in the plastic packaging, metallic packaging, and drinking cartons (PMD) bin. It is well known that this does not happen in very many cases. In this case, what is asked of the consumer in such cases will have to be made clearer.

A paper label on a plastic package seems more environmentally friendly, but the report reveals that this results in substantial emissions of CO2 and other harmful gases. Can you tell us more about this? And what should consumers do instead?

Plastic packaging with a paper label could be recyclable, provided the label can be removed properly during the washing process. If this label is not removable, the paper label is highly contaminating in the recycling process and will lead to poorer quality recyclate or it may even result in the packaging not being recyclable. This packaging will then end up in a waste stream that will ultimately not be recycled, but used for energy recovery (in other words: burned). This then results in all the outcomes stemming from CO2 emissions.

We cannot expect consumers to remove such labels. The solution to this will have to come from the packaging chain. As indicated above, solutions to this do exist.

 Lastly, do you have any advice for the packaging industry or the government?

Advice to the packaging industry:

Take the objectives of the Plastic Pact seriously. It is only 36 months to 2025. Make the simple changes now and/or get advice and support from the experts in this field, including staff from the BMC Circular Packaging research team.

Advice to the government:

Encourage efforts to make packaging recyclable and the use of recyclate in new packaging and other products according to the principle of ‘what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’ (equal treatment) and based on well-researched and available facts and data, so that the most sustainable packaging solutions are promoted. However, also remain open to new, innovative sustainable materials and system changes.

*You can read the complete message and report by Natuur & Milieu.

Questions? Please contact Harold Gankema.

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