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Is “Recyclable” the Correct Way to Describe Your Packaging?

As demand grows for green products, people are paying closer attention to how brands describe their efforts. Take “recyclable,” for example. It sounds simple, suggesting materials can be reused. But recycling varies by area, and not everything labeled as recyclable is recyclable in reality. 

So we ask, is “recyclable” the right term for your packaging? 

This blog explains the details and helps brands talk honestly about their sustainability work.

1. Understanding “Recyclable”

In the context of packaging, “recyclable” means that the material can be collected, processed, and transformed into new products through established recycling processes. To be considered recyclable, packaging must be made from materials that recycling facilities can efficiently sort and process, such as certain plastics, metals, glass, and paper.

Criteria for Recyclable Packaging 

For packaging to be deemed recyclable, it must meet the following specific criteria:

  1. Material Composition: The packaging should be made of materials that are accepted by most recycling programs. Common recyclable materials include PET plastic, HDPE plastic, glass, aluminum, steel, and certain types of paper and cardboard.
  2. Clean and Contaminant-Free: The packaging must be free from food residue, adhesives, and other contaminants that can interfere with the recycling process.
  3. Separable Components: If the packaging consists of multiple materials (e.g., plastic and metal), these components should be easily separable to ensure that each material can be correctly processed.
  4. Recycling Codes: The packaging should be marked with appropriate recycling codes that indicate the type of material and its recyclability.

Role of Recycling Facilities 

Recycling facilities determine the authenticity of packaging by sorting, cleaning, and processing recyclable materials into raw materials for manufacturers. However, not all facilities have the same capabilities, leading to potential confusion and contamination in the recycling stream, as some facilities handle a wide range of materials.

Importance of Local Recycling Capabilities 

Local recycling programs differ in what they can process. Just because packaging says it’s recyclable doesn’t mean it’s accepted everywhere. Brands need to know what local programs can handle and give clear recycling instructions. This makes sure “recyclable” is used right and helps recycling work better overall.

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2. The Reality of Recycling

Theoretical recyclability means a material can be recycled in perfect conditions, assuming all needed facilities and processes are available, and consumers sort and clean their recyclables well. Practical recyclability looks at real-world factors like local recycling systems, how clean the materials are, and what people actually do. Even if something can be recycled in theory, it might not happen because of these real-life challenges.

“Recycled Packaging” vs “Recyclable Packaging”

“Recycled packaging” refers to packaging materials that have already been used and then processed to be used again in new products or packaging. This emphasizes the reuse of materials to reduce waste.

“Recyclable packaging,” on the other hand, refers to packaging materials that can potentially be collected, sorted, processed, and reused or remanufactured into new products. It indicates that the packaging can enter a recycling system and be transformed into something new, assuming the appropriate facilities and processes are available.

To put it briefly:

  • Recycled packaging: Packaging made from materials that have already been used and recycled.
  • Recyclable packaging: Packaging that can be collected and recycled, potentially, but may not necessarily have been recycled before.

Statistics on Recycling Rates 

Global recycling rates reveal a stark contrast between what can be recycled and what actually is recycled. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that in the United States, only about 32% of municipal solid waste was recycled in 2018. Of this, certain materials fare better than others: paper and cardboard have a recycling rate of about 68%, while plastics lag significantly, with only about 8.7% being recycled. These figures highlight the gap between potential and actual recycling outcomes.

Common Barriers to Recycling 

Effective recycling faces several challenges:

  1. Contamination: This happens when non-recyclable items or dirty recyclables mix with recyclable materials. For instance, food residue on a recyclable container can spoil the whole batch, making it unusable.
  2. Lack of Infrastructure: Recycling abilities vary widely by region. Some places have advanced facilities that handle many materials, while others can only manage a few. This means that even if something says it’s recyclable, local places might not be set up to recycle it.
  3. Consumer Confusion: Many people aren’t sure what can and can’t be recycled. This leads to mistakes in sorting and more contamination. Clear labels and education are crucial to improving recycling.
  4. Economic Factors: The demand for recycled materials goes up and down. When demand is low, it can cost more to recycle than to throw things away. This affects how much actually gets recycled.

Brands can effectively communicate their packaging’s recycling capabilities by addressing common issues and bridging this gap between theoretical and practical recycling practices.

3. Legal and Regulatory Guidelines

Labeling packaging as recyclable is governed by rules to ensure claims are accurate and not misleading. These guidelines prevent greenwashing and maintain consumer trust.

  1. FTC Green Guides: In the US, the FTC’s Green Guides give rules for environmental claims. Packaging can only be called recyclable if it can be collected, separated, or recovered for reuse or making new things. Marketers must qualify recyclable claims if many consumers or communities lack recycling options.
  2. ISO Standards: Globally, ISO 14021 sets rules for environmental labels. It ensures claims like “recyclable” are accurate and can be proven.
  3. European Union Regulations: The EU has strict rules under directives like the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. Claims about packaging, including recyclability, must be clear, true, and backed by evidence.

Following these regulations helps brands label packaging correctly, preventing confusion and building trust with consumers.

Consequences of Mislabeling and Greenwashing Risks 

Mislabeling packaging as recyclable when it does not meet the required criteria can lead to several significant consequences:

  1. Legal Repercussions: Brands that make false or misleading claims can face legal action, including fines and penalties. Regulatory bodies like the FTC in the US can take enforcement actions against companies that violate guidelines.
  2. Loss of Consumer Trust: Greenwashing—making false or exaggerated environmental claims—can severely damage a brand’s reputation. Consumers are increasingly savvy and skeptical of environmental claims, and any indication of dishonesty can lead to a loss of trust and loyalty. 
  3. Environmental Impact: Misleading claims can contribute to environmental harm by causing improper disposal of materials. Consumers may place non-recyclable items in recycling bins, leading to contamination of the recycling stream and increased waste management costs.

By adhering to these regulations and standards, brands can ensure that their packaging claims are accurate and trustworthy. Companies need to stay informed about the legal requirements and continuously monitor and verify their claims to avoid the risks associated with greenwashing.  

4. Consumer Perception and Trust

Consumers today are more environmentally conscious and have high expectations for brands to adopt sustainable practices. They look for packaging labeled as “recyclable” with the belief that it will contribute to reducing waste and conserving resources. However, there is often a gap between consumer understanding and the realities of recycling. Many consumers assume that all items labeled as recyclable can be processed by their local recycling facilities, which isn’t always the case due to variations in recycling capabilities and the actual recyclability of certain materials.

Impact of Accurate Labeling on Brand Trust and Loyalty 

Accurate labeling is key for building and maintaining brand trust. When brands provide clear, truthful information about their packaging’s recyclability, it fosters consumer confidence and loyalty. Transparent communication about which parts of the packaging can be recycled and how to do so correctly can enhance a brand’s reputation as environmentally responsible. For instance, brands that include detailed recycling instructions on their packaging help consumers make informed decisions, which strengthens the trust and loyalty they have towards the brand​.

Conversely, misleading claims can severely damage consumer trust. When consumers discover that a product they believed to be recyclable isn’t processed as such by their local facilities, it can lead to frustration and a sense of betrayal. This misalignment between expectation and reality can diminish brand credibility and loyalty​ 

Examples of Misleading Terms Damaging Brand Reputation 

Several high-profile cases illustrate the risks of misleading environmental claims:

  1. Keurig: In 2019, Keurig faced backlash and legal challenges over claims that their K-Cup pods were recyclable. While the pods were technically recyclable, they were not accepted by most municipal recycling programs due to their small size and the need to separate the components. This led to consumer confusion and allegations of greenwashing, damaging Keurig’s reputation.
  2. Walmart: Walmart was sued for misleading recycling claims on its private-label products. The company labeled certain products as recyclable, even though they were not accepted by most local recycling facilities. This case underscored the importance of aligning product claims with actual recycling capabilities and highlighted the potential legal and reputational risks of greenwashing.

5. Alternatives and Additional Labels

Declaring a package “recyclable” when it doesn’t satisfy all reasonable requirements for recyclability is deceptive. In order to offer a more precise description, brands may want to explore substitute labels like:

  • “Partially Recyclable”: Indicates that some components of the packaging can be recycled while others cannot. This label can help consumers sort their waste more effectively.
  • “Recyclable Where Facilities Exist”: Acknowledges that the recyclability of the packaging depends on local recycling capabilities. This label helps set realistic expectations for consumers about the limitations of recycling infrastructure.
  • “Please Check Local Recycling Guidelines”: Encourages consumers to verify whether their local facilities accept the material, promoting informed recycling practices.

Other Environmental Claims and Labels 

Besides recyclability, brands can use other environmental claims to highlight the eco-friendly aspects of their packaging:

  • “Compostable”: Indicates that the packaging can break down into natural elements in a compost environment, turning into nutrient-rich soil. However, it’s important to specify whether the packaging is industrially compostable or home compostable.
  • “Biodegradable”: Suggests that the packaging can decompose naturally by microorganisms over time. It’s crucial to clarify the conditions required for biodegradation, as some materials need specific environments to break down.
  • “Made from Recycled Materials”: Highlights that the packaging is produced using recycled content, which reduces the demand for virgin materials and supports the recycling industry.

Importance of Clear and Detailed Recycling Instructions 

Providing clear and detailed recycling instructions on packaging is critical for helping consumers recycle correctly and efficiently. Instructions can include:

  • Step-by-Step Guidance: Outline the steps consumers should take to recycle the packaging properly. For example, instructing them to rinse containers and remove labels or lids can reduce contamination.
  • Material Identification: Clearly label each component of the packaging with its recycling code and provide information on whether it is recyclable or not.
  • Local Recycling Information: Direct consumers to local resources or websites where they can find specific recycling guidelines for their area.

6. Future Trends in Sustainable Packaging and Marketing

Packaging and marketing innovations are developing quickly as environmental sustainability becomes a global priority. Companies that keep up with these trends not only help the environment but also gain a competitive advantage by satisfying customers’ demands for ethical behavior. Here are some emerging trends and innovations to watch out for:

1. Biodegradable and Compostable Materials: Environmental pollution is a significant issue, with traditional plastic packaging contributing significantly. Biodegradable and compostable materials, such as bioplastics derived from renewable sources like corn starch or sugarcane, offer a promising alternative to reduce long-term waste and pollution.

2. Circular Economy Principles: The circular economy is about cutting waste and making products last longer by recycling, reusing, and regenerating them. Packaging plays a big role in this. Designs like using one type of material (mono-materials) and making things easy to take apart (disassembly) help products be recycled and reused more easily. Brands are starting to use these designs more to support the circular economy.

3. Advances in Recycling Technologies: New technologies are making recycling better. They can handle more kinds of materials and make the process more efficient. One innovation is chemical recycling, which breaks down plastics into basic parts to reuse. This helps recycle tough plastics and build a greener recycling system. Better sorting technology also helps separate materials more accurately, so recycled stuff is better for making new things.

4. Smart Packaging Solutions: Smart packaging uses technology to give real-time information on things like how fresh a product is, if it’s real, and how to use it. This helps shoppers and the environment by cutting food waste and using resources better. For instance, RFID tags can track products from start to finish, making it easier to manage stock and cut down on moving stuff around too much.

5. Transparency and Traceability: More and more, people want to know where products come from, how they’re made, and how they’re packaged. Brands using blockchain or digital tools can give clear information about their products’ environmental impact. This builds trust and lets shoppers choose based on what matters to them.

6. Design for Sustainability (DfS): Design for Sustainability (DfS) focuses on making products and packaging that are good for the environment and society throughout their life. This includes choosing materials wisely, using energy efficiently, making items easy to recycle, and planning for their end-of-life. Brands that use DfS not only reduce their environmental impact but also stand out by showing they care about sustainability, which can strengthen customer loyalty.


Knowing about recycling in depth and improving packaging is essential to reducing environmental impact. Brands that focus on these areas not only help the planet but also build a reputation as responsible companies. Check your packaging and marketing claims to make sure they are truthful and clear. 

To improve, use lifecycle analysis tools like OpenLCA. Also, look for certifications such as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPD). These tools help assess and enhance the environmental impact of products, guiding you towards more sustainable decisions.

CueForGood plays a role in sustainable marketing by promoting honest and clear communication about environmental efforts and supporting brands with B Corp. values.

Talk to us at Let’s work together to create a more sustainable future through honest and responsible marketing practices. 

Formerly an English trainer, a dearth of creativity led me into the world of digital marketing. I now channel my linguistic prowess as a Content Strategist at CueForGood.

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