Continuing the sustainability and recycling discussion, we felt it important to set a baseline for the current symbols used in packaging to communicate recyclability. Understanding the symbols used in packaging design to communicate the process of recycling or material sorting is important for designers working in the packaging industry. Not all municipalities are required to recycle materials with these symbols on them, the symbols are there to simplify sorting. Recycling of these materials is determined by regional demand for the recycled byproduct.
Here’s a quick-start guide of the major recycling symbols seen in packaging today.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
FSC isn’t about recycling, but it has everything to do with responsibly sourced materials, they are the gold standard for forest certification systems. The checkmark-and-tree icon and license number identifies the materials with this symbol come from responsible sources. The license numbers attached to the icon certify that the company is authorized to use the logo, and adhere to the strict chain-of-custody management processes through the supply chain .
Essentially, FSC certified materials are sourced from forests that are managed to protect old-growth, the rights of indigenous people, water quality, prevents the loss of natural forest cover, and prohibits the use of hazardous chemicals.
#1 PET or PETE
Polyethylene Terephthalate, is a polymer resin used in thermoforming of inserts, water bottles, and take out containers. PET’s triangle with the number 1 is the most widely recycled material due to the diverse number of products it can be converted to.
PET is currently being recycled into new bottles, fabrics, or spun into poly fillings for outerwear, pet-beds, and bedding.
High Density Polyethylene is an extremely versatile material that’s easily recycled in the majority of municipalities around the country. It’s extremely strong and lightweight replacing much heavier materials in packaging reducing the items overall environmental impact, partially due to its lower risk of leaching.
HDPE can be just as easily extruded to make bags as it can be molded to produce make-up palettes or outdoor furniture.
#3 PVC or “V”
Polyvinyl Chloride is another strong and lightweight plastic used in both its flexible and rigid form with the combination of plasticizers. As with all plastics, they are delivered in a pelletized or powdered form into which pigments can be added to create a rainbow of colors. Because PVC is chlorine based it’s not dependent on crude oil, making it incompatible with other types of polymers. PVC must be sorted and recycled only with PVC, as even the smallest amount of PVC may be considered a waste stream contaminant.
Note that size matters, small items (fist sized or smaller) typically get filtered out through the sorting process and end up in landfills.
Low Density Polyethylene has many applications, but its most relatable application is plastic shopping bag film due to its strength and flexibility. LDPE is also used in coating other substrates for its water resistance and tear strength, for example paper cups, milk cartons, and frozen food bags. The process of layering multiple materials renders both the base substrate and the coating difficult to separate and be recycled individually. Therefore products of combined substrates typically go to landfill, or are incinerated (which in some states is considered recycling, as it becomes energy).
Bulk collection programs of either LDPE, or LDPE coated materials are able to be recycled easily. Plastic shopping bag collection programs at grocery stores can collect thousands of bags and recycled at one time, without contaminating other waste streams.
Polypropylene is a durable rigid plastic that can be heat fused, and molded with flexible living hinges. Typical packaging uses include food packaging that require hot filling processes as the PP material has a high melting point and can withstand the process. PP is also quickly becoming the choice for plastic straws as the material does not crack as easily, and does not sink. PP is also new to recycling, with municipalities accepting it only as recently as 2012. Brands like P&G and Unilever are building a market for Post-Consumer PP which is seeing an increase in the material’s use.
Polystyrene can be either rigid or made into a protective Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam, AKA Styrofoam (which is a brand name for expanded foam insulation from DOW Chemical). In its rigid form we encounter it as single-use silverware, toys, electronics, and more. In its expanded or extruded form the foam can be upwards of 95% air giving it excellent protective qualities. We encounter styrofoam in many aspects of our lives, surfboards, egg packaging, packing peanuts, and many other uses that require lightweight product protection. The fact that Styrene naturally occurs in foods like coffee, strawberries, or beef, doesn’t make it safe to consume.
Once PS has been expanded and becomes the end product EPS, it cannot be recycled back into PS and it is often cheaper to produce it using virgin PS than to recycle it. Rigid PS is recyclable, and can be turned into many products post life, but make sure to check your local municipality if it’s accepted.
#7 Misc. or Other
Number seven essentially means all other plastics including bioplastics, multi-sourced plastics, compostables, fiberglass, nylon, and others that may contain BPA. Bio-based plastics are also categorized #7 and contain Polylactic Acid (PLA) which are plant based vs petroleum based plastics. A benefit to bioplastics is that they are biodegradable under certain environments, but require industrial processing to achieve it. Bioplastics will not biodegrade at home or in a landfill, in these environments they will breakdown as slowly as petroleum based plastics.
#7 is the catch-all mutt of plastics, and many curbside programs will not accept #7 plastics, including those labeled PLA.
Post-Consumer Waste (PCW)
PCW identifies the materials used in the final product were recycled at the end of their life-cycle. Many states today are requiring packaging use various amounts of PCW, in California for example all paper shopping bags must include a minimum of 40% PCW and be fully recyclable. Not adhering to these bag laws can result in fines to the brand responsible.
Pre-Consumer Waste shares the PCW abbreviation, yet is important to know the difference. Pre-Consumer waste is made up recycled materials that never made it to the consumer. For example, trimmings, extras, rejected materials, or scraps.
With more packaging material bans and laws governing recycling changing daily, you can choose to use materials with a higher post consumer content. The more demand on recycled materials the more reason for municipalities to accept a broader range of substrates. Increase demand, and they’ll increase supply.
Today in the U.S. consumers make the decision as to what goes into their curbside recycle bins, not knowing what materials are recycled in their area. Recycling symbols on packaging solely mean that the materials contained within are recyclable, they do not communicate that the end product is accepted at curbside nationally. There are many groups today working on further educating consumers and standardizing labels on collection bins. Recycle Across America has recently released standardized labels available here; The labels easily identify landfill waste, compostable waste, and glass, cans, and plastic bottles reducing public confusion at the bin.
It’s important to be informed about the materials you choose, where they will live, and recycling capabilities of those regions. As a consumer it’s best to abide by the age old rule, “When in doubt, throw it out”, as a designer it’s important to educate yourself, your client, and the consumer.