SEE discusses 'what you need to know’ about packaging recyclability claims; unsubstantiated or misleading claims create risk ranging from consumer complaints, negative social media chatter to class action lawsuits, fines from governmental organizations

Sample article from our Packaging Industry

May 10, 2023 (press release) –


There are four paths a package can take after serving its useful purpose: landfill/litter, composting, energy recovery/incineration, or recycling. While a recyclability claim is commonly associated with what makes a package sustainable, recycling is just one part of a complex ecosystem that depends on a variety of factors including geography, consumer behavior, collection processes, sorting processes, equipment, and profitability.

Packaging recyclability claims that are unsubstantiated or misleading create risk ranging from consumer complaints and negative social media chatter to class action lawsuits and fines from governmental organizations. They can also lead to a weakening of the recycling infrastructure, a circumstance the global circular economy simply can't afford.

Getting recyclability claims right is easier than you think — but it pays to follow the rules. Here are some things you need to know:

Criteria for 100% Recyclable

To be considered 100% recyclable, SEE® (formerly Sealed Air) believes packaging material or solutions must meet this criteria:

1. Can be collected at curbside or drop-off by at least 60% of the population 

Whether it’s picked up at the curbside or taken by the consumer to a drop-off location, collection is the first step to recycling. Recycling systems vary greatly in terms of what they will take based on everything from the sorting equipment available at the material recovery facility (MRF) they work with, how much labor they are able to employ to pick up bins or sort by hand, and even the market price for bales of collected material to off-set the cost of sorting.

Most municipal recycling programs publish the types of materials they accept either as part of customer agreements, printed guides, or on their websites. Based on a variety of factors, these rules can change from time to time — restricted items may still leave the curb, but unknowingly to the consumer, it will end up in the landfill.

All this is to say, that regardless of the material type, it becomes the responsibility of the consumer to check the rules that govern the program in which they participate, as well as to follow guidelines provided by standardized labels such as How2Recycle in the U.S., On-Pack Recycling Labels in the U.K, or the Australasian Recycling Labels in Australia and New Zealand.

While similar to some degree, labels and rules vary around the world and aren’t always easy to understand at a glance. That’s a lot for consumers to keep up with — and it’s one of the biggest reasons we encounter aspirational recycling — when consumers knowingly put something in the bin they may be unsure about and simply hope it gets recycled.

2. Can be sorted by the material recovery facility to which it is sent

Now that most municipal recycling programs offer mixed-stream recycling where paper, glass, metals, and plastics are collected in one bin, MRFs take on the critical role of sorting before items can move on to the actual recycling process.

Because the volume of waste can be high and the time to sort is so short, most modern MRFs automate the sorting process as much as possible with high-speed conveyors and screens, optical sorters, and robotics.

While that’s great news for packaging made of paper, metal, or glass, the “need for speed” presents a particular challenge for plastic. Plastics that often look and weigh the same, may be constructed completed differently, so how they react during different stages of the sorting process will also vary.

To keep things simple and to protect the integrity of their recycling streams, most MRFs limit the types of plastic they accept, and only through improvement of the recycling infrastructure is that likely to change.

3. Can be recycled into a commercially viable product

Recycling is the process through which materials are returned to some type of useful, marketable material. While there can be many ways to accomplish this task, two are of the most relevance to packaging: mechanical recycling and advanced recycling.

Mechanical recycling refers to operations that use processes such as grinding, washing, separating, drying, granulating, and compounding as the means to create recycled materials. For plastics, while mechanical recycling preserves the molecular structure, in some cases the recycled material does not possess the same functional properties as the original.

This results in downcycling, or the need to use the recycled material in a different or lower-value application. Examples of downcycling include PET water bottles that are recycled into pellets used to make carpeting or synthetic fleece fibers; used printer or photocopy paper being recycled into corrugated cardboard; or glass containers that are recycled into fiberglass insulation or used as additives in concrete or ceramic tiles.

Where plastics are concerned, the highest volume of mechanically recycled packaging materials are standard formats such as PET bottles for water and soft drinks, and HDPE jugs for milk and juice. Beyond those applications, there is no standard for what type of resin can be used, so it becomes more challenging for recyclers to identify and separate plastics to keep recycling streams pure.

Maintaining the quality and integrity of recycling streams is critical to marketability and therefore profitability. Without market demand, reasonable margins, or affordable pricing for recycled materials and the applications that use them, the entire recycling system will fail.

Complexity of the Plastic Recycling Ecosystem

With a start as early as the 1960s, municipal recycling programs as we know them today didn’t really gain scale until the 1990s. During that same period, plastic packaging changed dramatically as well, moving from the easier-to-identify-and-recycle rigid plastics like PET(E) and HDPE to include a broad range of performance plastics such as flexible LDPE films, PVC, PP, or PS.

In 1988, about the time municipal recycling programs began to gain scale, the Plastics Industry Association (formerly Society of the Plastics Industry) developed resin identification codes (RIC) to “provide a consistent national system to facilitate recycling of post-consumer plastics."

When first introduced, RIC symbols featured the universally recognized recycling symbol known as the “chasing arrows” to contain the resin type identification number. And, while those chasing arrows were intended only to facilitate the sorting process prior to recycling, the general public misinterpreted the symbols and began associating them directly with recyclability.

Currently, ASTM International maintains upkeep of the RIC graphic standards. While they officially replaced the chasing arrows with a solid triangle in 2013, following these standards remains voluntary, and use of the chasing arrows remains prevalent. For packaging in particular, keeping up with changing voluntary standards can be challenging — as the replacement of a die or injection mold is often determined to be cost prohibitive for such a small change.

Because RICs were never developed with brand owners or consumers in mind, claiming recyclability based on RIC alone is not enough. In today's environment, regardless of the material type, it becomes the responsibility of the consumer to check the rules that govern the program in which they participate.

That's why SEE® recommends use of standardized labels such as How2Recycle in the U.S., On-Pack Recycling Labels in the U.K, or the Australasian Recycling Labels in Australia and New Zealand.

And it’s also why SEE® takes the position that when it comes to recycling plastic packaging, the proper instruction to consumers always starts with “check locally.”

Innovation and Infrastructure

For more than 20 years until 2018, China accepted nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste, including 95% of the plastics collected in the E.U and 70% from the U.S. But when quality problems and contamination of their recycled materials caused a significant decline in market value, China instituted National Sword, a policy that banned the import of most plastics and other materials headed for their recycling processors.

Prior to 2018, as the use and development of flexible plastic packaging skyrocketed, governments worried little about the need to build their own infrastructure to recycle it. At the same time, most consumers had no idea that the materials they put out at the curb eventually went overseas.

The good news is countries and municipalities that may have once relied on exporting recyclables to China are now investing in and enhancing their own infrastructure. For example:

Research conducted by the Materials Recovery for the Future project in 2020 showed that state-of-the-art optical sorting and peripheral systems are significantly improving the capture rate and quality of recycled flexible plastic packaging.

Advanced recycling, also called chemical recycling, uses pyrolysis to create plastic with performance properties equal to virgin plastics that can be used for the same application from which they came — such as fresh food packaging.

Industry associations are conducting initiatives focused on improving the process of recycling PE films, recycling post-industrial food packaging, or using recycled plastic content in products like asphalt.

While these technologies are still in developmental stages, they are part of how SEE® and its related industries are working together to create more and better recycling solutions.

Why SEE® Calls It Recycle-Ready

SEE® defines recyclability as the likelihood that a material will be collected, recycled, and then made into a new, commercially viable product. Given the current state of the recycling ecosystem around the world that's not as easy or straightforward as it should be.

The company understands that political climate, NGOs, or exchanges on social media often put pressure on an industry for change but SEE® won’t take short cuts that could put the progress it’s made at risk.

The term recyclable has criteria associated with it that SEE® observes to ensure the purity, quality, and market value of its recycling streams. And, while the company will continue to develop and introduce new products with recyclability in mind, it acknowledges the infrastructure may not be ready to accommodate these innovations just yet — so it sends them to market as recycle-ready.

As soon as these materials meet all criteria to be labeled 100% recyclable, SEE® will update the claim.

Originally published on

* All content is copyrighted by Industry Intelligence, or the original respective author or source. You may not recirculate, redistrubte or publish the analysis and presentation included in the service without Industry Intelligence's prior written consent. Please review our terms of use.

See our dashboard in action - schedule an demo
Dan Rivard
Dan Rivard
- VP Market Development -

We offer built-to-order packaging industry coverage for our clients. Contact us for a free consultation.

About Us

We deliver market news & information relevant to your business.

We monitor all your market drivers.

We aggregate, curate, filter and map your specific needs.

We deliver the right information to the right person at the right time.

Our Contacts

1990 S Bundy Dr. Suite #380,
Los Angeles, CA 90025

+1 (310) 553 0008

About Cookies On This Site

We collect data, including through use of cookies and similar technology ("cookies") that enchance the online experience. By clicking "I agree", you agree to our cookies, agree to bound by our Terms of Use, and acknowledge our Privacy Policy. For more information on our data practices and how to exercise your privacy rights, please see our Privacy Policy.