Food & Beverage

How to design (truly) recyclable packaging for your Food & Beverage brand

It is no secret to you, as industrial manufacturers, that regulators and consumers alike want you to focus more on the sustainability of your products and processes. In this eco-friendly context, designing recyclable packaging has become an increasingly important branding and economic issue for many brands.

For Food & Beverage manufacturers, the task can seem even more difficult. You face specific challenges concerning the food safety of your products, for example. And, to top it all, the key issue lies in the fact that most industry players don’t know what truly recyclable packaging is. 

In this post, discover how to design truly recyclable beverage or food packaging, with eight ways to maximize its sustainability.

Fleur photo créé par jcomp -

What is truly recyclable packaging for the Food & Beverage industry?

First and foremost, it is important for Food & Beverage players to understand the definition of truly recyclable packaging, which must fulfil four key characteristics:

  1. The packaging has to be collected in the right way. Bearing in mind that every country has its own collection system, often with different requirements, it may be harder to fulfil this characteristic than it appears.
  2. The packaging has to be sorted in a sorting plant. Sorting plants sort waste depending on the materials they are made of. For plastic packaging, for example, NIR technology is used to sort according to the type of material it is made from, i.e. by type of polymer. Sorting accounts for 80% of the recycling process. This means that even if packaging is theoretically recyclable, some of its characteristics (size or product leftovers that may remain inside) can influence the detection and sorting destination, causing the packaging to go to incineration, or even landfill in certain countries.
  3. The packaging has to be reprocessed after it is sorted. Every recyclable material has to be sent to specific recycling companies for reprocessing.
  4. The packaging has to have a final application. This means that, after being reprocessed, the recycled material has to be reused, either to create something else (upcycling or downcycling), or for the same packaging (circular).

But the Food & Beverage industry also faces specific challenges when it comes to designing truly recyclable packaging. For example, the potential combination of packaging materials, in multi-layered packaging, can influence its recyclability, even making it non-recyclable in the end. 

Another significant challenge is the fact that, when integrating recycled plastic in their packaging, Food & Beverage players have to find food-grade recycled material from plastics suppliers, which many companies find difficult.

Eight ways to maximize the sustainability of your Food & Beverage packaging

Now that you have in mind the four key characteristics of recyclable packaging, discover our expert tips on designing truly sustainable packaging for your Food & Beverage products. 

Dive deep into your market’s recyclability processes

First and foremost, even before you analyse the recyclability of your existing packaging or create a new and more sustainable one, you need to know how your local market’s recycling processes work. As they often vary from country to country, it is crucial that you understand every step in these specific, local recycling processes. 

More precisely, you need to gain information on: 

  • The way waste is collected
  • The way it is sorted
  • The region’s recyclability rates 
  • The best materials to use to make your packaging as recyclable as possible

Study your existing packaging’s recyclability

If you plan on optimizing your existing packaging’s recyclability, focus first on a recyclability study. At SUEZ, we conduct these studies. You will need to send some samples of your packaging to one of our state-of-the-art recycling plants, where we study how it goes through the sorting process (or not). After this analysis, we give our customers a full report explaining the main issues regarding the packaging’s recyclability.

To go even further, you can also ask for recyclability certification. SUEZ does this too, thanks to its affiliation with ReCyclass (an organization of Plastics Recyclers Europe). It involves a complete study of the packaging’s recyclability, and provides a recyclability score and suggestions for further improvement.

Optimize your packaging for the sorting process

The most important part of developing recyclable packaging today is making it compatible with the way sorting machines work

There are two crucial steps to achieving this:

  • Optimize the shape of the packaging for easy emptying. The residue inside the packaging can impact its sortability. For example, if a bottle of honey, ketchup or mayonnaise has residue inside it during the sorting process, the machines won’t be able to eject them properly.
  • Use different kinds of materials with different kinds of density to make separation easier, or aim for mono-material packaging if possible. For example, coffee has to be protected from UVs and oxygen, which can endanger the quality of the final product. As a consequence, coffee packaging is made of different materials, including aluminium, ultimately making it unrecyclable.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

Add sustainable marketing elements to your packaging

Of course, companies need to add marketing elements to their product packaging, so that it reflects their brand. But these sometimes anecdotal elements can impact the packaging’s recyclability if they are not taken into consideration during the design process.

For example, labels must be glued to the packaging using water-soluble glues. The aim is to make them easily washable during the processing phase. Also, be careful when using fibre-based labels, which can negatively impact the recycling process, due to fibre loss.

Another important marketing element is the colour used to design your Food & Beverage packaging. Some colours may make it difficult for the NIR to detect your packaging as recyclable. That is why we recommend you use light colours and avoid full-body sleeves on your sustainable packaging.

Consider your packaging’s eco-design 

If, after analysing your existing packaging’s recyclability, you find it is not as sustainable as you expected it to be, you may want to consider eco-designing new packaging, to make it truly circular.

Every eco-packaging design project has its own goals and methods. But bear in mind that a typical eco-design project involves the following stages:

  • Packaging engineers start by identifying the most suitable materials to use (plastic, glass, metal, cardboard, etc.), bearing in mind the protection that the final product needs.
  • They then identify the shape the packaging should have to suit the sorting process, and so that it can be easily emptied.
  • They then add marketing elements to the packaging - labels, colours, etc. - which, as we have seen, is a crucial step when aiming for truly recyclable food or beverage packaging.

As every eco-packaging design project is specific to the brand and the product, make sure you develop it with the right partner, who will take into account every specific marketing and product protection detail for you.

Think about different sustainable uses for your packaging

When talking about “recyclability”, Food & Beverage players often think about “circularity”, also called “closed loop”. This type of packaging has the ultimate aim of reproducing the same packaging at the end of the recycling process. 

But marketing experts often don’t know that their Food & Beverage packaging can have other types of final use:

  • It can be upcycled. This means the sustainable packaging is used in other recyclable products after first being recycled. One such example is the well-known bottle-to-bottle scheme.
  • It can be downcycled. This means it will have its final use after being recycled. A typical example is flexible plastic packaging and plastic films, which are downcycled into garden tools or athletics tracks.

What if your sustainable packaging design project took one of these two other final uses into account?

Inform the consumer where and how to dispose of the packaging

Creating fully recyclable packaging is not enough. Your consumers also need to know how they can recycle it. For most people, recycling is not a spontaneous action and it is the brand’s responsibility to help them know where and how they can recycle their packaging.

To do this, make sure you include the distinctive logos and labels that help the end-user dispose of the packaging in the right way.

Include food-grade recycled materials in your packaging

Once you have completed all the previous steps to ensure your packaging is recyclable, correctly sorted and processed, why not close the circularity loop by reintegrating recycled content in your packaging? Whether you include recycled PET in your primary packaging, or consider adding low-density polyethylene to your secondary packaging, environmentally-friendly and truly circular alternatives do exist.

But finding food-grade recycled plastic resin and other packaging materials can be quite challenging for Food & Beverage players. In fact, these materials need to be precisely traced during their sorting and processing phases to ensure they are not mixed in with non-food grade plastics (from the cosmetics industry, for example). However, in most countries, recycling plants struggle to separate these different types of plastic during their sorting processes. 

And yet, this challenge is becoming increasingly decisive for brands as regulations expect them to make these changes over the coming years. In the EU, for example, regulations stipulate that, by 2025, all PET bottles will have to contain at least 25% recycled materials.

Want to learn more about how to include recycled plastics in your Food & Beverage packaging?

Stay up to date on emerging sustainability technologies

Over the past few years, sustainable solutions have kept on evolving, bringing us to where we are now - at a point where many Food & Beverage packaging items can be truly recyclable, or even circular. But there is still some room for improvement and technologies keep emerging to help brands design packaging that is even more eco-friendly

For example, as mechanical recycling (the traditional recycling process used today) shows weaknesses for multi-layered packaging projects, an innovative technology - chemical recycling - is starting to emerge. This process, still in a developmental phase, focuses on ways to “break” polymers into shorter molecules, the final goal being to end up with multiple monomers, which can each be recycled.

As of today, some companies offer solutions to help industrial manufacturers find food-grade quality recycled plastics. For example, SUEZ has teamed up with Loop Industries to build the first Infinite LoopMC plant in Europe. This plant will produce plastics that are 100% recycled and recyclable.

When creating eco-friendly packaging, make sure you are supported by sustainability experts who always look for the most innovative solutions to help you reach your environmental and marketing goals.