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Research Centre

Green labels: Recycled or Recyclable?

By August 27, 2020No Comments

With the emergence of sustainability labels, considerable onus is placed on consumers to make greener choices, but which claim is better?

Labels and claims on products are used to provide consumers with a simplified message or feeling about the product they are about to purchase. A rise in public awareness about environmental issues have thus coincided with more sustainability claims being made. While at times obscure, these messages have long referred to what’s inside the package, and less about the packaging itself. Going beyond claims about recyclability, how should we assess the new claims about recycled plastic content, and which is better? 

What’s in it? Is it good for me? Where was it grown? Such questions are common place in the food industry and have been well catered to largely though the organic and Fairtrade movements. For years consumers have benefitted from the array of options available, giving them the freedom to make purchasing decisions aligned with their own preferences and values. Consumers who care about orangutans can look out for the RSPO (Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil) logo, only used on products that contain sustainably sourced palm oil. For those want to support British farmers, the Red Tractor symbol satisfies.

However, when it comes to greener packaging choices, especially plastic packaging, consumers have been provided with little options. While avoidance has been a cutthroat strategy for some, supported by the likes of the ‘plastic free’ label, eco-friendliness of packaging has largely been attributed to the material or by what consumers can do with the packaging once it has fulfilled its purpose. While recyclability remains the number on green packaging claim, communicated via the On-Pack-Recycling-Label, or the more generic Green Mobius Loop, there remains a gap when it comes to questions around how the packaging is made and where it has come from. However, recent months have seen a shift, with more companies using recycled plastic content in their packaging. But with both claims abound, what do they really mean and which one is greener? 

When faced with either or, choosing packaging made with recycled plastic content is a greener choice.

“Packaging made from ‘50% Recycled Content’ is a far more substantial statement than packaging that is theoretically 100% recyclable. This is because packaging made from recycled plastic guarantees that recycling has already happened.” 

Raffi Schieir, director of Bantam Materials UK

This nuance, he adds, is important as packaging that only claims to be ‘100% Recyclable’ is likely made from new, virgin plastic. This packaging could also then be sent to landfill or worse, as recyclability depends on a wider range of factors that go beyond placing the used packaging in the right bin. Although one may assume that packaging made with recycled plastic content is recyclable because it is made from recycled materials, the complex nature of recycling puts into question this theory. He concludes: 

“At the end of the day, packaging which contains both recycled content and that is also recyclable is the ideal, as both are needed to fully support the circular economy.” 

As an array of new products flood into the market with various claims being made, it is important to understand these distinctions. With the rise of these labels, a considerable onus has been put on the consumer through their purchasing power. For those passionate about protecting our oceans, look out the Prevented Ocean Plastic™ logo. This symbol is only used on products which contain a minimum of 30% recycled plastic, collected from coastlines most at risk of ocean plastic pollution.