Published 9 months ago.
About a 7 minute read.
The term 'recycling' has become ubiquitous in our daily lives, but the nuances between ‘recyclable’ and ‘circular’ are often misunderstood. Understanding the distinction between the two is crucial in achieving a sustainable future.
Despite the widespread promotion of recycling, confusion still exists among
consumers about what is truly recyclable. For example, a recent report found
that only 5 to 6
of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the United States last year
was recycled. But consumers still hold the belief that glass, plastic and liquid
cartons are more recyclable than they are; and they don’t perceive metals to be
as recyclable as they
Promoting sustainability starts with tackling the misperceptions of
recyclability and recycling rates, and clarifying the definition of a circular
Recycling has been widely promoted since the 1970s. In theory or on a small
scale, most materials can be recycled; but in reality on an industrial scale, it
is much more nuanced than that. “Recycling” refers to the process of collecting
waste, sorting, reprocessing and finally turning it into a new product. This is
a much more complicated process than meets the eye — as there are losses of
material in each step of the process. You might think that a plastic fork, for
example, is “recycled” when you deposit it in a recycling bin — but
unfortunately, the material’s recycling rate is much lower than expected: Only
of plastic is recycled, and much of it ends up in
While recycling is undoubtedly a necessary component of a circular economy, we
need to ensure that products and materials are designed from the outset to be
reused, repaired and remanufactured. The next step to this is the number of
times a material can be
which depends on the quality of the final recyclates and the recycling systems
in place. This is what we refer to as “circularity.”
Some materials, such as plastics or mixed composites, reduce in quality when
recycled and can therefore often only be recycled two to three times before
ending up in a landfill or incinerator — therefore, they cannot be considered to
be circular. Other materials — such as steel, aluminum and glass — are at the
other end of the spectrum and can be recycled
a massive difference — and it's the “forever” part that makes a material
circular instead of “just” recyclable.
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Packaging is an essential component of a circular economy, and its design and
use must minimize waste and maximize use of
In this context, packaging is an important part of the product life cycle — as
its design, use and disposal are crucial to achieving a circular economy. We
must be creating closed-loop systems where materials are collected, sorted and
recycled into new products, and utilizing raw materials from renewable sources.
That’s why recycling is not the end goal: It doesn’t look at the bigger picture.
Minimizing packaging material, using infinitely recyclable materials,
encouraging reuse and designing packaging to minimize waste throughout the
entire life cycle — from production to disposal — are all essential to achieving
The lack of progress in recycling
is a concern, especially given the amount of plastic
plaguing our oceans and nature. If we don't take immediate action, the 11
million metric tons of
that enter the ocean each year will triple in the next 20 years. This is why
businesses must understand the complexities of recycling and take a more active
role in enabling a circular economy. We must shift our focus towards circular
materials and away from those that can only be recycled a few times.
Thankfully, according to Trivium Packaging's 2022 Global Buying Green Report,
consumers are eager to play a role in finding long-term solutions. The report
found that over half of consumers are less likely to purchase products with
harmful packaging; and 44 percent have stated they will not buy products with
environmentally harmful packaging.
Despite consumers prioritizing sustainable packaging, there remains a gap in
Brands are responsible for bridging this gap and can do so in several ways.
Businesses can start by investing in the infrastructure needed for circular
materials. By embracing materials that are infinitely recyclable and avoiding
those with limited recyclability, companies of all sizes can not only advance
their own sustainability objectives but also play a role in preserving our
planet. Steel, for example, is infinitely recyclable — with an 86
recycling rate in Europe. This makes it a more environmentally sustainable
option considering that only a portion of the energy is needed to recycle metal
compared to virgin
Businesses can also collaborate with recycling centers to promote new
technologies that can more accurately and efficiently sort recyclable materials.
This partnership can take many forms, such as investing in advanced recycling
or funding research and development for new sorting technologies. By supporting
these initiatives, companies can help ensure that the recycling process is as
efficient and effective as possible, reducing waste and increasing the number of
materials that can be reused.
For example, we are collaborating with industry stakeholders on the efficient
collection and recycling of used materials — especially household waste —
through a process known as urban mining. Our Trivium Argentina plant recently
partnered with Creando Conciencia — an
urban recyclers organisation that collects aerosol aluminum cans from consumers’
homes, then processes and sells them to Trivium for inclusion in the production
of new aluminum containers. This partnership is a great example of the kind of
supplier-based collaborations that actively promote recycling in line with a
This not only supports circularity but also helps to conserve valuable resources
and reduce the environmental impact of waste. Furthermore, companies that work
with recycling centers to promote new technologies can demonstrate their
commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility — which can
positively impact their reputation and attract conscious consumers.
The next step is reaching consumers through education and engagement. Brands can
create educational content on recycling across their channels — communicating
the benefits of sustainable materials and incentivizing the recycling of their
For example, incorporating labels such as Europe’s Metal Recycles
Forever mark or
How2Recycle info on packaging and point-of-sale
materials can help showcase a company's attention to sustainable packaging and
inspire consumers to take action. This helps change behavior and drive the
adoption of more environmentally conscious practices, as 54
of consumers actively look for sustainability information on packaging.
Showcasing sustainability information on packaging is part of the solution, but
packaging can only do so much — brands that take a more holistic approach to
sustainability marketing by making packaging material part of their story, on
their website and through advertising and promotion, can help align perceptions
with reality and strengthen their sustainability credentials.
Ultimately, recycling is far from the simple solution promoted in the past; it
is complex and requires effort from everyone involved. But businesses have a
critical role in bridging the gap between consumer interest in sustainable
products and packaging and their everyday recycling practices. This can be
accomplished by focusing on two key efforts: investing in circular materials and
processes, and incentivizing circular behaviors. By shifting the focus towards
circularity versus recyclability, we are one step closer to ensuring a
sustainable future for our planet.
Published Mar 2, 2023 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Jenny Wassenaar is the Chief Sustainability Officer for Trivium Packaging, a global leader in metal packaging.