Rigid Plastic Packaging Design for Recyclability

20 Jun 2023

Plastics are widely used because of their many unique properties. Plastic products and packaging are light, durable, chemically inert and cheap. Packaging is the largest application of plastics: globally 31% of total volume of plastics consumed were for packaging applications in 2019. In India, 56% of the total plastics placed on the market are used for packaging applications. The primary role of packaging is to protect the product and help eliminate product waste. However, a staggering 95% of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy after a brief initial use cycle, and globally, one-third of plastic packaging remains uncollected, leading to pollution in the natural environment.

To effectively manage plastic packaging, solutions should be sought across the entire plastics value chain. This includes eliminating unnecessary and problematic plastics, designing plastics to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable, ensuring efficient recycling of plastic packaging, and incorporating recycled content back into packaging.

In general, packaging should be designed with minimal environmental impact, utilizing the lowest quantity of resources possible, and be recyclable. 

Plastic packaging or its components can be considered recyclable, if post-consumer collection, sorting, and effective recycling of the primary component of the packaging (by weight) is proven to work successfully at scale. The remaining minor components should also be compatible with the recycling process and not hinder the recyclability of the main component.

Recycling plays a vital role in a circular economy as it allows to reduce the demand for virgin materials. Recycled content can be used in packaging applications again, as long as the quality meets the requirements of the end-use. However, packaging is often designed in a manner that impedes its recyclability or leads to a deterioration in material quality upon recycling. Additionally, poor design choices can render otherwise recyclable packaging unrecyclable within the existing infrastructure.

The five questions listed below can guide packaging producers and brand owners towards deciding whether their packaging is practically recyclable and not just technically recyclable:

Can the consumer recognise the packaging (or product) as recyclable? 
Is the packaging (or product) widely collected for recycling?
Can the packaging (or product) be sorted?
Is the packaging (or product) capable of being made into something new?
Is there a commercially viable end-market for the recyclate?

Designing packaging to be both technically and practically recyclable ensures that it can be successfully collected, sorted, and recycled without any degradation in the quality of the recycled material. Therefore, improving packaging recyclability through better design is crucial for closing the loop and establishing a circular economy for plastics.

In 2022, the Government of India notified the new Extended Producer Responsibility Guidelines, under the Plastic Waste Management Rules, placing a statutory responsibility on manufacturers to collect, recycle and reuse used plastic packaging, and use recycled content in new plastic packaging. The Guidelines aim to improve packaging sustainability thorough ambitious targets and promoting improved packaging design.

It is anticipated that these EPR Guidelines will generate significant interest in closed-loop recycling, further driving the adoption of sustainable practices in the packaging industry.

The low-hanging fruit for such recycling is rigid packaging (bottles, pots, tubs and trays) due to three reasons. 

Nearly one-third of plastic packaging placed on the market in India is used for rigid packaging applications such as bottles used for personal and homecare products, drinking water and carbonated soft drinks.
Rigid packaging is easier to recycle compared to flexible packaging. One of the main reasons for this is that rigids generally have a mono-polymer mono-layer structure which is easier to recycle compared to the multi-polymer multi-layer structures often used in flexibles.
The existing collection system for rigids is robust. Additionally, most plastic packaging being recycled in India currently is in rigid formats. 

India Plastic Pact has developed a design guidance that aims to improve the recyclability of rigid packaging in India by providing packaging producers, designers and brand owners a better understanding on how their design decisions affect recyclability.

To know more download the report on Design Guidance Recommendations: Rigid Packaging published by India Plastic Pact.

The India Plastics Pact, launched in September 2021, is an initiative developed by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and WWF India. CII manages the Pact’s Secretariat. Within CII, it is anchored at the CII-ITC Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development (CESD). The initiative is supported by WRAP, a global NGO based in the UK. The Pact’s vision is to create ‘a world where plastic is valued and doesn’t pollute the environment.’

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