Design for recycling

Design for Recycling means that care is taken during a packaging's design and development process to ensure the packaging is suitable for recycling after being used or reused. One condition is, of course, that the functionality of the product-packaging combination must be preserved. In other words, the packaged product must be adequately protected and the product-packaging combination must continue to offer the right functionality to end users.

To better understand the basic principles of Design for Recycling, it is important to know the definition of the term “recyclable”

Packaging must meet four conditions to be easily recyclable: 

  1. Packaging must be made of materials that can be collected or picked up by approved waste collectors.
  2. Packaging must be sorted and/or bundled into pre-defined streams for recycling processes.
  3. During the recycling process, the material is processed on an industrial scale and is reclaimed into a raw material.
  4. The reclaimed raw material has a clear composition and can be used to produce new packaging or products.  

Innovative materials must be able to demonstrate that they can be collected and sorted in sufficient quantities and that they are compatible with existing industrial recycling processes or available in sufficient quantities to develop new industrial processes.

Based on: Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2015, Plastic Recyclers Europe 2018, European Directive 94/EC/62.

With Design for Recycling, the goal during each of the four phases is to ensure a packaging can be processed and the product can move on to the next phase at the end of each preceding phase. The ultimate goal is for the packaging to be used as material for the production of a new product. The key principles of each of the four phases are explained below.


During collection, it is important to account for the context of the moment at which the packaging in question is disposed of:

  • If it concerns a logistical packaging or if the product is used in an industrial setting, different conditions for recyclability apply. Businesses sign contracts with waste processing companies in which these conditions are recorded. Once again, the time and place of disposal are important. The time and especially the place determine e.g. whether materials can easily be collected as monostreams (such as cardboard boxes, plastic pallet covers, etcetera).
  • If it concerns a consumer packaging that is disposed of at home, the waste system for household waste is used.
  • If the product is used outside the home and the packaging is disposed of in a public waste bin, there is a significant chance that it will not be sorted further and will ultimately end up in the residual waste stream.

Example of the Dutch collection, sorting and recycling systems for plastic packaging waste

Source: KIDV. Example of the Dutch collection, sorting and recycling system of plastic packaging waste.


Design details can have a major impact on a packaging's sortability. Issues like choice of material, printing, label material and size and even the dimensions of a packaging determine whether an industrial sorting facility can properly sort a packaging or not. If the sorting process goes well, the material can then be processed further by a recycler. If it does not go well, however, the packaging may end up as residual waste or in the wrong material stream. As a result, an easily recyclable material may be incinerated after all. In the worst-case scenario, a packaging may contaminate an entire material stream, making it unsuitable for further recycling.


Design details can have a major impact on a packaging's recyclability. Issues like choice of material, printing, label material and size and even the dimensions of a packaging determine whether a recycler can properly process a packaging into a new raw material.

The application of recycled material

Design for recycling is pointless unless the recycling process eventually results in a raw material that can be used for the production of a new packaging or a new product. The recycled material therefore has to have an economic value as well. If the material is reused, it would be ideal if it can be recycled again after the next usage phase. This aspect can be taken into account as well as part of design for recycling.

The waste stage


The use of packaging materials is subject of European legislation. On 20 December 1994, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union introduced the Directive 94/62/EG (hereinafter: Directive) for packaging materials and packaging waste. This Directive was subsequently revised on 22 May 2018. The goal of this Directive is to limit the use of packaging materials and stimulate recycling, reuse and other useful applications for packaging waste.

All EU Member States are required to implement the Directive in their own national legislation. Every Member State has its own way of doing so. Packforward started to give an overview of the way the different Member States implemented the Directive, but the overview is not completed yet. You can find more information for the Netherlands, information about other countries will follow soon.

Despite the efforts made with regard to collecting, sorting and recycling packaging waste, new raw materials will have to flow into the packaging chain in order to safeguard the quality of the material and compensate for the loss of material in the chain. For a growing number of the new raw materials, steps are being taken towards a circular economy, e.g. by making use of biobased materials.




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