5 ways design can help consumers recycle

We asked what should have been an easy question: How might a Tetrapak be recycled in the South East? Instead of a quick answer, our own limited desk research demonstrated just how disparate the waste management systems across the UK are, with 11 councils not recycling them at all, another 12 asking consumers to take them to a recycling site and the remaining 44 collecting Tetrapaks in the household ‘kerbside’ recycling in no less than 10 different coloured wheelie bins, boxes or bags.

With Government recycling targets in the spotlight over the last few months, it’s shocking to learn from a BBC News analysis in March this year that half of local authorities recycled a lower proportion of household waste in 2016-17 than in 2011-12 and that since 2011-12, the overall household recycling rate in England has risen by just 0.7%, while most regions have seen a fall.

How are brand owners responding? And just how helpful is the recycling information on the packaging we buy on a regular basis?

Many brand owners and 90% of local authorities are now signed up to Wrap’s ‘Recycle Now’ on-pack labelling scheme. This was launched nine years ago, so presumably this means that the recycling information on packaging is now generally helpful. When we reviewed a random sample of FMCG packs, however, we were a little shocked. Whilst some were provided clear recycling guidelines that were easy to find, many were surprisingly poor and, even as experienced packaging designers, we struggled to work out what could/couldn’t be recycled. But it did get us thinking…

5 ideas to help consumers recycle

We’ve come up with five ways in which retailer and manufacturer brands could help consumers recycle more effectively:

1. Give more priority to recycling information. Dedicating about 0.5% of the pack to communicating recycling information seems to be the norm. By simply using more of the pack to make the icons and text bigger and clearer, brands could make it easier for consumers to take notice of recycling information and have better understanding. If space is an issue, there are ways around this.

2. Consistent placement on packs. Putting recycling information in the same place on a brand’s packaging would support consumers who are eager to do their part. Instead of searching, they’d know exactly where to go.

3. Communicate on front of pack. Why relegate sustainability to a tiny space on the back of pack? Boldly displaying recycling information on front of pack could appeal to consumers and possibly drive them to make brand choices based on sustainably and ease of recycling at point of purchase.

4. Use colour coding. As of right now, green is the prominent colour used in recycling symbols. While this makes sense, it’s not helpful as all the symbols are blending together. Adding a bit of colour would help consumers identify and distinguish the recycling guidelines for different materials and packaging components.

5. Spare us the ‘green dot’ – the two intertwined arrows in green or black – which consumers think means a pack is ‘recyclable’, when in reality it doesn’t (who knew?)

In addition to the Recycle Now programme, many FMCG companies have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, but the opportunities we’ve identified above demonstrate that there are potentially more immediate gains to be made. Design agencies exist for such challenges and, given that consumer motivation to recycle is at an all-time high, there’s a tangible bottom line benefit to the brand owner that takes this packaging ‘bull’ by the horns and delivers. And apart from the redesign and printing costs, it doesn’t even have to add to the cost of the packaging.

Can you imagine the column inches a brand owner could claim if they cracked this issue and ‘owned’ on-pack recycling efficacy?

Looking beyond these opportunities for on-pack graphics, the brand owners and retailers could further improve recycling efficiency by linking on- and off-pack communication; from shelf wobblers to retail partnerships, from recycling micro-sites to opportunities for software apps that link consumer, pack and local recycling system. Then there are recycling reward programmes – driven from a retail or a manufacturer perspective.

We haven’t even touched on pack structure, where considered and innovative design could make a significant contribution to recycling. We’ll revisit that topic for the next article in our series…

“Responsible design (because we are responsible)” is a blog series for brand managers, marketers and entrepreneurs looking for ways to answer consumer demand for better sustainability practices. Written by Thomas Herman, Marketing Director and Founder of Path, this series provides practical advice that brands can begin implementing today, for a better tomorrow.

Previous posts in this series:

UK Plastics Pact: Design agencies need to crash the party

Is your brand ready for a more sustainable Path? Contact Thomas to discuss on how you can use design to achieve your sustainability goals.


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