Are recycling symbols confusing UK consumers?

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02 Aug 2018 --- The wide array of symbols on household and food packaging is leaving British consumers feeling confused about what can and cannot be recycled, a Which? survey has identified. The UK has made strides in cutting back on plastic waste, and in increasing the recycling rates of the public, however, the new Which? survey notes some surprising figures illustrating a landscape of confusion.

The packaging survey included 2,000 members of the general public earlier this year. It noted that nearly half (48 percent) of participants, believed the Green Dot symbol (two green arrows joined in a circle) commonly found on packaging means that the item can be recycled. In fact, it means that the company has paid into a scheme that supports recycling and use of sustainable materials, not that the product itself is recyclable, or made of recycled material.

Meanwhile 73 percent of participants did understand that the Mobius Loop (three arrows looped into a triangle) does mean that a product can be recycled.

The results have prompted Which? to call on the Government and manufacturers to simplify and clarify packaging labels, to ensure that consumers understand what can and cannot be recycled. This should, in turn, allow for a smoother and more efficient recycling process.

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Source: Which?

This news follows a recent Which? survey which highlighted the plight of unrecyclable, or difficult to recycle, plastics in UK supermarkets, which you can read in full here.

Compostable confusion?
The arrival of more eco-friendly packaging options, such as biodegradable and compostable, on the market has potentially fueled consumer confusion even more, due to the technical differences between the materials. “Consumers' perceptions of terms such as 'recyclable' and 'biodegradable' or 'compostable' can be easily mistaken – for example, packaging made from recycled content may be made from 10 percent recycled content or 100 percent recycled content. If the recyclate for the latter is sourced long distance, then the latter may not be environmentally better than the 10 percent recycled content,” Richard Coles, Director of Emagine Packaging tells PackagingInsight.

Furthermore, “a compostable bioplastic (e.g., corn starch-derived) may not be home compostable but only industrially compostable though the infrastructure for the latter may not be available and so these bioplastics might then undermine the efficiency of conventional plastics recycling systems. Then there are oxydegradable plastics which may be erroneously marketed as oxybiodegradable plastics and so, for example, amplify the marine pollution risk.”

So, how can the confusion be limited? “Ambiguity must be avoided and crystal-clear clarity needed, e.g., '100 percent recycled paperboard carton with a minimum 30 percent post-consumer content.'”

Some positive steps have been taken in clarifying the process for compostable materials in the UK. Vegware recently announced that its compostable hot and cold cups and lids are now allowed at UK garden waste composting facilities, as long as milk and cream are the only animal by-products present, thereby dramatically increasing the number of facilities authorized to process compostable drinks waste.

Going forward: Multi-sectoral focus required
The pressures for effective recycling should not fall to one party; be it local authorities, consumers or brands. Moreover, efficient recycling requires active engagement from all groups.

“The UK government, through its environment secretary Michael Gove, wishes to make a positive impression and will intervene to simplify such matters for consumers. It will also be inspired by the case of Wales which is reported to have the third-best recycling rate in the world. However, this will mean more than just how one communicates with the general public to adopt more sustainable consumption behaviors, but also conducting intensive collaborative work with local authorities, retailers, brands and a wide range of other stakeholders. Ultimately, it is vitally important that (potential) users are engaged and educated to consume responsibly,” says Coles.

Furthermore, Coles notes that due consideration should also be given to other dimensions of the circular economy industry paradigm such as reusable packaging and refillable systems. 

“Such developments are becoming more evident – for example, in the takeaway coffee cup foodservice sector. Increasingly, brands will in future need to adopt a life cycle assessment (LCA) approach to both products and their packaging, and adopt appropriate eco-design strategies, e.g., utilize where possible readily recyclable mono-material structures in place of difficult or impossible-to-recycle laminates for flexible and rigid packaging. However, such developments should not compromise the safety and shelf-life protection of foods which most often have a significantly higher ecological (carbon) footprint than the packaging itself, particularly more so if that food should go to waste,” concludes Coles.

By Laxmi Haigh

This article is the result of a collaboration between PackagingInsights and FoodIngredientsFirst.

This feature is provided by FoodIngredientsFirst's sister website, PackagingInsights.

To contact our editorial team please email us at

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