The starting point of any sustainable ecommerce packaging strategy is to ensure packaging is recyclable. In the last three years, a handful of articles have cast doubts on recycling. While the news stories are well intentioned, we are alarmed to see how they have led consumers to be even more cavalier about recycling.
This has also led EcoEnclose to receive a lot of amazing questions from the committed, and passionate companies we have the privilege of working with. Here, we share insights about nine common mistruths we hear about recycling.
We hope this helps bolster your efforts towards ensuring your packaging is recyclable and motivates you to encourage your customers to recycle your packaging (ideally after reusing it).
Myth #1: Most of what you recycle doesn’t actually get recycled
In fact, most MRFs (the facilities that receive, sort and sell your recycled materials to reclaimers) are able to successfully sell over 90% of what they receive. The small percent of materials that do get sorted out of the MRF and sent to the landfill are largely items that should never have been put in the recycling bin - food waste, yard waste, electronics, etc.
It is true that in the months following China's “National Sword” policy, (in place as of January 2018), MRFs suffered a shock. With many of their most reliable markets shut off from them, all MRFs turned to North American buyers. This led to an oversupply of recycled content domestically, which led to rock bottom prices for their commodities. As a result, some MRFs had to stockpile material, some stopped accepting certain materials, and yes, at times certain MRFs had to landfill some of their inputs. Anytime a major shock hits an industry, there will be severe impacts short-term.
However, in the months and years that have followed, we have seen the recycling market slowly recover from this market shock. Most MRFs are successfully selling 90%+ of what they receive and - our favorite part of this story - they are more likely to be selling their materials within North America. We continue to see expansion of the capacity and technological capabilities of reclaimers and remanufacturers.
Myth #2: Recycling is a bit of a scam. It doesn’t ultimately benefit the planet
While recycling is by no means perfect, it is still the best option for something after it has reached the end of its useful life and can no longer be reused.
MRFs sell your recycled content to reclaimers, who use these as inputs into new materials.
The EPA has shown that the benefits of manufacturing with recycled content are clear: Recycling aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy needed to make new cans from raw materials. Recycling paper saves 60%. Recycling plastic and glass saves about 30-50%. Yes, these figures take into account the carbon footprint of trucking and sorting of recycled goods. Recycling helps reduce litter, avoids the harmful pollution associated with mining or growing virgin material. And recycling creates jobs - over 1.25 million in the US.
Myth #3: Everything can only be recycled once so aren’t we just delaying the inevitable anyway?
Actually, most materials can be recycled more than once.
Technically, glass and aluminum can be recycled indefinitely, because their material does not degrade when recycled (it is unfortunate that aluminum and glass are not generally made with 100% recycled material).
Paper can be recycled five or more times, and advanced screening and pulping technology is helping to extend this to five to seven times.
Plastics can often be recycled twice, and plastic typically ends up in a more durable product such as composite lumber. However, new technology is helping to extend this much further, allowing plastics to be recycled many times before degrading past a useful application.
Myth #4: Everyone recycles, so we don’t have to encourage people to do so
Unfortunately, the rate of recycling in the US is only 32%, a number that is not growing.
This means that only 32% of the items that could be recycled across the US end up being recycled (a whopping 68% gets landfilled).
The EPA’s goal is to get to 50% by 2030 and unfortunately, the current trends are not promising. This low recycling rate is actually hurting the sustainability efforts of really large brands who want to use recycled content, because the supply is so limited (which leads to much higher pricing).
Brands like yours can play a critical role helping to educate and incentivize your customers to recycle their packaging (and everything else they possibly can).
Myth #5: If something is hard-to-recycle, it probably isn’t worth recycling
When items are deemed “hard to recycle” they aren’t accepted in most blue bin, single stream recycling programs.
This can be due to a number of reasons. The material or item can be difficult to sort, the market for the material might be niche and difficult for a MRF to sell to, the item may be likely to bring in a lot of contamination, etc.
Poly bags, poly mailers and bubble mailers are examples of ecommerce packaging that are “hard-to-recycle” and - in most municipalities - must be dropped off at a thin film bin at a big box retailer. The reason these items are “hard-to-recycle” and have to be source separated is due to sorting technology at MRFs. In most MRFs, plastic film gets caught in the gears of sorting equipment, causing the gears to stop or break, leading to costly repairs and downtime.
Myth #6: If packaging is reusable, we shouldn’t care if it is recyclable
There are a lot of reusable goods that can and are reused thousands of times - water bottles, coffee mugs, stainless steel straws, dish towels. While we always prefer that these items can be recycled at the end of their useful life, it is also clear that the long-term use of these durable alternatives outweighs single-use options. Even with that said, we do see progressive brand doing everything they can to design even durable goods to be recycled (for example, PopSocket’s take back program).
However, it is important to bring a more thoughtful lens to reusable packaging, (grocery totes, cotton bags to replace clear poly bags, reusable mailers, refillable bottles), which - depending on the situation - are sometimes reused only a handful of times.
Certain types of reusable packaging might break, get lost, get torn up, or degrade in quality after dozens of uses. Given this, it is so important that brands assess how many uses are likely for any reusable packaging they use, and if that number isn’t very high - work hard to make that packaging recyclable at the end of its life.
Consider the fact that many reusable options use over 20 times the material as a single-use alternative. If they end up in the landfill after 20 uses, they will create just as much waste and have higher carbon footprints.
Myth #7: If something is recyclable, it can be put in every blue bin across the country
I wish! Unfortunately, recycling rules vary drastically across the country, based on the MRF serving each community. MRFs determine what they can accept based on (1) their sorting equipment and (2) what they are able to sell and have found markets for. To make matters more confusing, MRFs are often upgrading equipment, investing in new lines and finding new markets - leading them to accept new materials regularly. For example, Denver recently began accepting disposable coffee cups! This is a huge win for the Denver community. Unfortunately, the majority of people don’t yet know this to be true, leading to most coffee mugs ending up in the landfill.
When it comes to the most common types of ecommerce packaging, there is a little bit of clarity. The vast majority of blue bin programs accept corrugated boxes, paper mailers and packaging paper. Additionally, the vast majority of curbside programs do not accept poly mailers, clear poly bags and bubble mailers (though a growing set do, based on investments they have made in their sorting lines) - meaning that most communities need to recycle poly film at a thin film drop off.
The one sustainable packaging item EcoEnclose offers that has varying guidance across the country is tissue paper. In some towns, tissue paper should be recycled while in others, tissue paper should be composted or landfilled.
Learn more about how to recycle our products here.
Myth #8: If your packaging is recyclable, it is sustainable, and you’re good to go!
Recycling is not a silver bullet. It is one component of a much broader set of strategies that will help us address climate change, consumption and waste issues. From the perspective of waste management hierarchy, mindful consumption, source reduction and reuse should always come first, before recycling. Additionally, we believe it is a major miss to focus on recycling without simultaneously focusing on recycled content.
When it comes to packaging, we believe all ecommerce packaging should be designed for recyclability.
Our perspective is that being recyclable is a baseline. In itself, it is not enough to set a packaging apart as being “sustainable.”
Once you’ve designed for recyclability, consider other characteristics - recycled content, ink, sustainably grown renewable inputs, country and conditions of manufacture, etc - if you want to build a packaging strategy that is truly eco-friendly.
Myth #9: It is better to compost than recycle packaging
An unfortunate consequence of the spate of news stories casting doubt and mistrust of recycling is that well intentioned brands might think that compostable is actually preferred for their ecommerce packaging.
This is a question we are constantly researching - which is better: designing for recyclability or compostability.
According to every environmental organization we have ever interacted with - ranging from Denver’s Climate Action Task Force, to EcoCycle, to A1 Organics and Recology (two industrial composting facilities), to the Composters Manufacturing Alliance, to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition - the consensus stands: All non-food packaging should be designed for recyclability.
In situations where packaging is likely to include food residue in it, it should be designed for compostability. This is only because the packaging can serve as a carrier, helping food waste get composted instead of landfilled.
References and Additional Reading
- The US is currently at a 32% Recycling Rate (EPA, Recycling Partnership)
- Ecological benefits of recycling are clear, even after accounting for the carbon emissions of trucking (National Geographic)
- 90% of Denver recycling is successfully sold and Denver's MRF (GFL) is on par with national averages. Tay Dunklee, Program Administrator at Denver's Climate Action, Sustainability & Resiliency Department (Panel: The Climate Change Collective: Recycling Myth Busters; July 6, 2021)
- 90% of materials sent to "clean MRFs" are recycled and sold. Clean MRFs are MRFs that only accept recycled waste (versus "dirty" MRFs which accept and sort all waste together). (WastePlace.org)
- 95% of Boulder County's MRF is successfully sold, somewhat higher than the national average due in part to better education (which leads to fewer contaminants). (EcoCycle, Nick Maranda)
- When discounting the weight of the heaviest recycling contaminants (bowling balls, tanks, batteries), Waste Management's sale rate is well over 90%. (Sustainable Packaging Coalition Webinar, April 2021, similar data reference in Waste Management's annual report)
- Breakdown of waste and carbon footprint considerations when it comes to reusable packaging (Reloop, Sustainability of Reusable Packaging)
- Compostability vs Recyclability