Can I recycle this? The push to make plastic packaging labelling transparent

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Pic: GettyImages/nikom1234
Pic: GettyImages/nikom1234

Related tags Plastic Pollution Recyclable packaging

Much of plastic recycling labelling is ‘confusing and inconsistent’, according to a global assessment of recycling and sustainability labelling. The UN Environment Programme and Consumers International have set out five global recommendations for change.

Plastic pollution is an urgent concern, with an estimated 8m tonnes entering the marine environment every year.

Around the globe, countries are adopting measures to combat plastic waste. In Europe, for example, 27 Member States, plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey have implemented national or regional waste prevention programmes.

Industry is also making headway. Again, in Europe, the European Plastics Pact – which has been signed by food and beverage majors such as Nestlé, Unilever, and Carrefour – aims to make all plastic packaging and single-use plastic products reusable where possible, and recyclable by 2025.

Yet according to the UN Environment Programme and membership organisation for consumer groups, Consumers International, business and policy action to date has been insufficient. ‘Far more needs to be done’ to transition to sustainable consumption and production patterns, they note in a report published yesterday​ (19 May 2020).

“A crucial but often overlooked element of this transition are customers,” ​they write. “The decisions they make about what products to purchase and how to dispose of them leave a crucial influence on production processes and levels of plastic leakage.

“However, too often the onus is placed on consumers to understand an array of confusing, contradictory, or misleading information.”

Globally mapping standards, labels and claims

To examine just how clear plastic packaging standards, labels and claims concerning packaging materials, production, recyclability and disposal are, the organisations undertook a global study.

“Often consumers are looking at packaging in order to advise/provide information on how to properly dispose of the product,”​ Consumers International Director General, Helena Leurent, explained.

“Providing clear, accessible and reliable information on sustainability on product plastic packaging can help to inform the consumer and make sustainability the easy choice and help to reduce unnecessary plastic littering into the environment.”

According to their findings, however, 19% of the 31 worldwide labels assessed were given a negative score by consulted experts, 19% were positive, and the rest received mixed or neutral results.

The EUCertPlast logo received a mixed response. It was found to be transparent, yet the image difficult to interpret

Concerning labels for recycling guidance, for example, the UK’s ‘On-Pack Recycling Label’ (OPRL) received positive results – with experts deeming the logo clear and relevant: the new design reduces burden on the consumer to seek extra information, and it acknowledges local infrastructure variation.

The ‘EUCertPlast’ logo – created by Plastics Recyclers Europe – on the other hand received a ‘mixed’ response. Experts appreciated its transparency yet found the image difficult to interpret.

With regards to labels for recycling financing – which are designed to indicate that companies have paid into a fund to support recycling infrastructure, deposit schemes and recycling partnerships – respondents also noted some confusion.

The ‘Green Dot’ label, which means that for such packaging, a financial contribution has been paid to a qualified national packaging recovery organisation, was negatively received. Its interpretation is unclear, according to respondents: “[The logo] does not mean recyclable, but imagery suggests otherwise.”

Denmark’s ‘Pant, A, B, C’ logo – used in the national recycling system to indicate which bottles can be returned to collect a deposit refund – was the only logo to receive a positive assessment in this category.

Overlap-images oprl
The UK's On-Pack Recycling Label received positive results in the global assessment for its clarity and relevance

The claims assessment also revealed disparity in interpretation. The claim ‘Made from Recycled Plastic’, for example, can be confused with the ‘Recyclable’ claim.

‘Biobased’ can be misinterpreted as ‘Biodegradable’ by consumers, and the ‘Compostable and Biodegradable’ claim is ‘potentially meaningless’, according to the report authors. This is because ‘only a very small percentage’ of people have access to the appropriate infrastructure.

“Labelling on plastic packaging, including beverages and other food products, does not always provide clear and actionable information to consumers,”​ Consumers International Director General, Helena Leurent, told this publication.

“Along with lack of consistency across brands and countries, this results in confusion around sustainability, recyclability and other packaging characteristics.”

Five global recommendations

A global, multi-stakeholder approach is the only way to tackle the plastics pollution crisis, and minimise consumer confusion, suggest the authors, who outline five global recommendations for businesses, policymakers and standard setters.

The idea is that these by adhering to these recommendations, consumers will be able to make sustainable choices.

1. Businesses should follow the Guidelines for Providing Product Sustainability Information ​in their plastic packaging communications

While some labels stood out as particularly well, or poorly, designed, the majority of the labels received ‘neutral’ or ‘mixed’ reactions. This suggests that communications are inherently subjective, according to the report authors. It also suggests ‘notable room for improvement’ for most consumer-facing sustainability communications on plastic packaging.

Businesses should therefore ensure their labels and claims correspond with at least the five fundamental principles in the Guideline

2. Definitions about the content and reusability of plastic packaging need to be harmonised at a global level.

One of the clearest messages to come from the assessment was that the current state of on-package communications is very confusing for consumers, and inconsistency makes it more difficult for consumers to compare the sustainability characteristics of one product’s packaging to another.

“There should be global consistency of definitions regarding the content and reusability of plastic packaging in standards,” ​note the authors. “Labels and claims should be updated to reflect these.”

3. Standards, labels, and claims need to better reflect actual conditions

Information about proper disposal should better reflect the local conditions that consumers experience, the report authors urge.

“At present, there are two key problems. Firstly, there is a discrepancy between what claims say and what is likely to happen to that plastic packaging, particularly regarding compostability and biodegradability.”

And secondly, guidance on proper disposal is only relevant if consumers have access to the facilities and infrastructure necessary to properly carry out these processes.

“The definitions and technical requirements used in standards related to recyclability, compostability, and biodegradability should better reflect real world conditions and be more attentive to accessibility.

“Where possible, claims and labels should be based on national or international standards.”

4. The use of the ‘chasing arrows’ symbol should be restricted to indicate recyclability

According to the findings, certain design practices increase consumer confusion. The ‘chasing arrows’ symbol, generally used to mean ‘recyclable’ is also used in the ‘Green Dot’ and the outdated but still widely used resin codes. Neither of these indicate labels indicate recyclability.

The study authors recommend that businesses currently using the ‘chasing arrows’ design for claims other that recyclability should redesign their image-based communications without the logos. “The design of labels and logos should seek to minimise the potential for misinterpretation.”

5. Information and verified recycling guidance labels should be adopted and proper use enforced

The mapping and assessment also highlighted good design practices, which help consumers do the right thing. The adoption of these labels, experts argue, has encouraged more sustainable design innovation – meaning that businesses can avoid carrying a ‘not recyclable’ label on their packaging.

“Businesses should use recyclable plastic packaging and adopt an established recycling guidance label appropriate to their geography and commit to placing it on all packages at a readable size.”

The 'Green Dot' logo was negatively received, due to its potential confusion the 'Recyclable' logo

For Consumers International’s Director General, action is required immediately. The coronavirus pandemic may well provide an opportunity to truly combat the plastics pollution crisis, she suggested.

“As the world rebuilds after COVID-19, we must focus on rebuilding our economy but doing it in a way that meets the Sustainable Development Goals. We have a unique opportunity to change and rebuild systems to work for people, business and the planet.

“To accelerate sustainable solutions to the world’s biggest challenges we need to bring together dedicated, innovative and ambitious people across all areas of the plastics infrastructure.”

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