recyclable-food-packagingPlastic waste does not belong in the environment – and the industry has a lot of work to do to develop the solutions needed to scale recycling effectively, reduce waste, and move towards the goal of a plastics circular economy.

But if we take a step back from all the negativity surrounding plastic for a minute, the benefits that it provides are amazing. Plastic allows us to provide people all over the globe with clean drinking water. It allows us to preserve and transport various types of food, so that people can have reliable, safe, and nutritious products, while cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions from wasted food. It allows for lighter weight cars so that we can drive our vehicles more efficiently and with less emissions. Plastic also allows us to protect and transport life-saving medications and medical devices.In addition to all the modern conveniences and benefits that plastic delivers, despite the negative perception of plastics it is actually the “greenest” solution in comparison to alternative materials such as glass, aluminum or paper. In fact, multiple life-cycle assessments have concluded that a switch to alternative materials would on average result in 3-4 times higher environmental impact, meaning more CO2, more waste, more water used and increased emissions, primarily as a result of the increased weight of the materials vs plastic.

However, the bottom line is plastic waste has no business in the environment, and we should do whatever we can to ensure that these materials are kept out of landfills and treated as the valuable resources that they are, so that they can be reclaimed and reused into future applications.

Common Food Packaging Materials

The type of plastic materials used in packaging applications, including food packaging, are called thermoplastic resins – which means that they can be softened through the application of heat & molded various times, making them ideal for recycling.

A variety of plastic materials are used today for food packaging, which are selected based on their performance and mechanical properties, product protection, and compatibility with packaging and sterilization processes. The materials most commonly used in food packaging include Polypropylene (PP), PET, Polyethylene (PE), Polystyrene (PS) and to a lesser extent PVC, as well as specialty barrier materials like EVOH and PVDC.

Before there was such an emphasis on sustainable design for recyclability, the main concerns that companies had when designing packaging were product protection, process compatibility, and approval for food contact. However, the rules have changed and companies now must rethink the material selection process to prioritize sustainability and recyclability while balancing the list of other processing, technical and business requirements.

Take for example, form fill seal food packaging applications, which were designed around the use of PS for their functional & mechanical attributes, food contact approval and compatibility with the high-efficiency form-fill-seal equipment. While this material worked well for decades, emerging health & safety guidelines including Prop 65, and a growing emphasis on the development of recyclable food packaging led companies to seek an alternative solution.

Recyclable Food Packaging Design Guidelines

Plastics recycling is a key component to reducing waste and achieving the goal of a plastic’s circular economy.

While all thermoplastic materials are technically “recyclable,” the potential to be effectively recycled & reused into new applications goes beyond the type of plastic it is. The ability of a material to be recycled in practice and at scale depends on several factors including consumer access to collection systems, the market value of the recycled material, ability to be sorted correctly at MRFs and PRFs, and the ability for the material to be further processed into usable post-consumer recycled (PCR) feedstock.

When it comes to designing recyclable food packaging, there are five organizations whose guidelines have emerged as the standard for design for recyclable food packaging to help companies determine if their packaging solution can be effectively recycled:plastic-recycling-circular-economy

  • APR Design Guide: The APR Design Guide has become widely recognized as the authority on how to design plastics packaging for recyclability in North America, and helps packaging designers measure each aspect of their packaging including the base resin, color, size & dimensions, closures & dispensers, barrier layers, coatings & additives, labels adhesives & ink and any other attachments, against industry-accepted criteria to ensure true compatibility with recycling systems.

    APR classifies packaging into four categories: APR Design Preferred, Detrimental to Recycling, Renders the Package Non-Recyclable and Requires Testing. For base resins, the APR Design Guide indicates that PET, HDPE, PE and PP materials can be recycled dependent on other design features, while PVC, EPS, PS and PLA are not recyclable per APR Definition.


  • US Plastics Pact Problematic & Unnecessary Materials List: The US Plastics Pact is an organization that aims to connect public-private stakeholders across the plastics value chain to rethink the way we design, use and reuse plastic to create a path forward to realizing a circular economy for plastics in the US.

    The Pact works with activators to take measures to eliminate a list of 11 problematic and unnecessary resins, components, and formats in order to accelerate this process. “Problematic or Unnecessary” is defined as “Plastic packaging items, components, or materials where consumption could be avoided through elimination, reuse or replacement and items that, post-consumption, commonly do not enter the recycling and/or composting systems, or where they do, are detrimental to the recycling or composting system due to their format, composition, or size.”

    The list goes on to name specific products and packaging materials to avoid or eliminate help guide organizations during the design or redesign phase including materials found in food packaging like opaque or pigmented PET, PS including EPS, and PVC including PVDC.


  • How2Recycle: How2Recycle is an organization whose objective is to develop a consistent and transparent on-package labeling & disposal instructions for consumers in the US and Canada.

    The organization allows companies to submit their full packaging solution, including any over-wraps, caps/closures, etc., and classifies packaging components into four categories: Widely recyclable, check locally, store drop-off and not yet recyclable. Companies can then add this label to their packaging to help consumers properly recycle or dispose of the various packaging components.

  • Walmart’s Recycling Playbook: The recycling playbook is intended to serve as a tool to support the transition to more sustainable packaging, taking into consideration guidance from aforementioned organizations including the US Plastics Pact, The Consumer Goods Forum, APR Design Guide and the Recycling Partnership. The playbook offers a guide by packaging format classifying different types of packaging into optimize, change or advance.

  • RecyClass: Recyclass is a non-profit, cross-industry initiative aimed at facilitating the transition toward a plastics circular economy, advancing plastics packaging recyclability while promoting the traceability of plastic waste and recycled plastic content in Europe. 

    The organization’s Design for Recycling Guidelines offers insight into the compatibility of different elements of a packaging solution, including caps, labels or adhesives given recycling streams and offers guidelines on how to improve the overall recyclability of plastic products. The guideline categorizes packaging into three categories: full compatibility, limited compatibility, and low compatibility, for a list of products including various rigid thermoformed packaging such as PET trays, HDPE containers, PP containers, EPS containers, and PS containers.

  • Consumer Goods Forum Golden Design Rules: The Consumer Goods Forum is committed to reducing the complexity of the recycling process & increasing recycling rates. As the company’s website states: “One reason why plastic packaging ends up in nature is due to the complexity of the recycling process, which can be complicated by poor packaging design, the inclusion of problematic materials and the presence of excess packaging.” The Forum has therefor developed a series of “Golden Design Rules,” for the design of plastic packaging to help accelerate progress towards using less and better plastic.

The Future of Recyclable Food Packaging

For all the benefits that plastics afford our modern society, there exists the unintended negative consequence of plastic waste. But what if that plastic waste could be used as a resource? That is the basis of a plastic’s circular economy – where plastic materials are not discarded in landfills or littered in our environment but recycled properly at the end of the products usable life in an efficient recycling system, so that the materials can be reused back into new applications, cutting down on both waste to landfill and virgin plastic consumption – and design for recyclability is a key part of making this a reality.

Interested in finding out how ICPG can help you comply with industry-standard guidelines for recyclable food packaging? Reach out to our team of experts to learn how we help our clients eliminate problematic and non-recyclable materials including PS, and complex barrier materials.

Download our guide to gain more insights into our XPP Polypropylene Solutions, and how to achieve sustainability in rigid food packaging:

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