Design for Recovery

The goal of recovery is to capture the social, environmental, and economic
investment that remains embodied in packaging at its end-of-life. The extent to
which the embodied value can be captured depends on the means of recovery.

It is generally accepted that reuse captures more value than recycling and recycling captures more value than either energy recovery or composting. However, reuse is not a viable means of recovery for most packaging, and recycling may offer limited opportunities for many types and applications of packaging.

As with every design strategy, designing for recovery should be used as part of an overall strategy to optimize the sustainability attributes of the package-product system. The design team should design each package in the packaging system for the best recovery scenario that is practical and likely to occur after use.

Designing for Reuse

When a packaging is reused, the impacts incurred during its manufacturing and conversion are dispersed over several additional life cycles. Reuse is considered to be the most beneficial means of recovery, although it is not a practical option for many packaging applications.

Keep in mind:

  • Transport packaging and other business-to-business packaging often offer the best opportunities for reuse.
  • Every reusable package will ultimately reach its final end-of-life, so reusable packaging should also be designed for recycling, composting, or energy recovery.
  • There is a difference between reusing and repurposing. When a package is repurposed for a different use at its end-of-life, it enters a different life cycle and considerations such as material health may change.
  • Corrugated cartons may often be reused several times and then repurposed as separators during transportation.

Questions to ask:

  • Do I understand the tradeoffs that come with adding weight for increased durability?
  • Is the package collapsible for its return transportation?
  • If a package is designed to be repurposed, how many times can it be used for that new purpose?
  • After the package has reached its last reuse, is it compatible with a recycling system?
  • If a consumer-facing package is designed for reuse, what is the likelihood that consumers will reuse it? Should an incentive be offered?
Useful Measurements:
  • GPPS attribute: packaging reuse rate
Learn more:

Designing for Recycling

Recycling is a process in which the materials in packaging are salvaged for use as feedstocks for new packages or products. At a package’s end-of-life, recycling is initiated by the end user using a drop-off site, a take-back program, or a curbside collection system. Most packaging is collected in commingled streams and therefore must be identifiable for sorting by an automated sorting system or a hand-sorting system. To complete the recycling process, the packaging material must be suitable for use as a feedstock in a processing operation. Designing for recycling should take into account each of these steps in the recycling process.

The economics of recycling are largely related to the purity and ease with which a material can be recovered. If mixtures of materials are used in packaging and they are not separable or separating them is time and labor intensive or costly (equipment, technology), then the economic value diminishes. Recycling is an essential strategy for the sustainable cycling of packaging materials – especially non-renewable materials. It generates a multitude of benefits, including supplying industry with valuable materials, creating jobs, and results in the conservation of natural resources and energy.

Stages in curbside recycling collection

Collection and transportation: residents place containers, packaging and printed matter in recycling bins, which are then collected and transported. Collection and transportation results in material compaction.

Sorting center operations: All recyclable materials are handled by sorting centers or municipal recycling facilities (MRF). They are unloaded, transported on conveyor belts, sorted mechanically, manually, and optically, before being baled and sent on to a recycler.

  • Mechanical sorting: mechanical sorting equipment is used to separate fibers (paper and cardboard) from plastic, glass, and metal packaging. Some types of mechanical sorting equipment perform better than others from an operational point of view.
  • Manual sorting: sorting center employees separate plastic packaging from glass and metal. Plastic packaging is often sorted into three main categories: 1) PET bottles, 2) HDPE bottles, and 3) other plastic packaging, called “mixed plastics”.
  • Optical sorting: some sorting centers have optical sorting equipment. This equipment replaces part of manual sorting, i.e. that which separates packaging according to their materials. In general, this technology is used to separate plastic packaging.

Materials may then undergo further treatment such as cleaning and shredding before they are sold to a reprocessor.

Keep in mind:

  • Almost all packaging is technically recyclable, but practical recyclability depends on the likelihood of the package being collected, correctly sorted, conditioned, and successfully reprocessed.
  • Materials have no inherent “recyclability”. Recyclability always depends on a specific combination of the package’s characteristics, which may include shape, size, color, format, application, and ancillary treatments in addition to the primary material type.
  • Most packaging is sold to a reprocessor in a bale that conforms to a standard specification for the type of packaging or material. Bale specifications are a good starting point to learn what reprocessors want and what they consider to be contamination.
  • The system is changing and evolving. Packaging that is currently considered to be unrecyclable may be recyclable in the future. The technology we have today may change for better tomorrow providing opportunities for materials or packaging which were considered non-recyclable before.
  • The economics of recycling are largely related to the purity and ease with which a material can be recovered or recycled. If mixtures of materials are used in packaging and they are not separable or separating them is time intensive, then the economic value diminishes.
  • The recycling system also generates a multitude of benefits, including supplying industry with valuable materials, creating jobs, and results in the conservation of natural resources and energy.
  • Specific resources are available for guidance on designing for recycling.

Questions to ask:

  • What percentage of consumers has access to a collection program that accepts this type of package?
  • If the package is commonly excluded by curbside collection systems and drop-off sites, would a take-back program present a feasible option?
  • Is the package readily identifiable by its shape, size, and color for hand- sorting? Or if it is sorted by automated equipment, what physical characteristics does the equipment use to correctly identify the package?
  • Is the package compatible with one or more bale specifications? If it is likely to fall into the periphery of what is acceptable but undesirable (an
    outthrow)? Is there an alternative design decision that would increase its compatibility?
  • How much residual product is likely to remain in the package? Will that have an effect on the behavior of the package in a sorting process or reprocessing
    operation? Is it likely to render the entire package to be a contaminant?
  • Is the end-user given clear and accurate instructions for recycling the package?
  • Can fewer materials be used? Are the materials easily separated manually or mechanically (design for disassembly)?

Recyclability guidance by material type


  • Steel packaging is accepted in nearly all collection systems, it is easily sortable due to its magnetic property, and steel reprocessing operations are unlikely to be adversely affected by any non-steel components.
  • All non-steel components, however, are unlikely to be separated and sent to their respective recycling streams.


  • Aluminum beverage cans are widely accepted in recycling programs and are readily identifiable in sorting operations.
  • Other rigid aluminum containers also tend to fare well during collection and sorting.
  • Thin aluminum trays may be excluded from recycling programs due to their tendency to hold food residue, which is considered to be a contaminant.
  • Foils also tend to be excluded from recycling programs, and they are generally not desired by aluminum reprocessors.
  • Food contamination and rigid plastic components present the most risk to aluminum recycling.


  • Most types of fiber-based packaging are widely accepted for recycling and tend to be easily sorted.
  • The biggest challenge for paper recycling occurs in the repulping operation after collection and sorting: repulping operations use water (often in combination with heat, chemicals, and time) to penetrate and break apart fibers, so any fiber-based packaging that is designed to resist moisture may be problematic in reprocessing operations.
  • All non-fiber-based components are considered to be contaminants and will likely be landfilled.
  • Special attention must also be paid to inks, coatings, additives, and adhesives with regard to their behavior in repulping operations.


  • Glass containers tend to be accepted in most collection programs and are often sorted by a “negative sort”, being that they are the heavy, non-magnetic material that remains after other materials have been pulled out.
  • All non-glass components are considered contaminants and must be removed from the glass before it can be used in the manufacture of new glass containers.
  • Steel closures tend to be easier to remove than aluminum closures, and aluminum closures tend to be easier to remove than plastic closures. Paper and plastic labels rarely pose problems for glass recycling.
  • Clear, green, and brown glass are most preferable to reprocessors, and while other colors may be excluded from collection programs, they are generally not regarded as being problematic to sorting operations or reprocessing operations.
  • Glass often undergoes color sorting by optical sorters, so any glass that is not translucent is likely to be excluded.
  • Containers made of any type of glass other than soda-lime glass are not recyclable and will pose considerable problems to glass reprocessors.


  • Blow molded PET containers are widely accepted in recycling programs, while other types of PET containers are less widely accepted.
  • PET packaging may undergo a float/sink operation wherein the PET floats while non-PET components sink. Any design decision that modifies this behavior may pose a problem during sorting. PVC components must be avoided as they sink and may be mistakenly identified as PET.
  • There is a general consensus that full-body shrink sleeves are detrimental to recycling PET bottles and are best avoided.
  • HDPE and PP closures are usually sorted out of PET packaging and sent to their respective recycling streams.

Other Polymers

  • Polyethylene films (both LDPE and HDPE) are commonly accepted at retail drop-off sites. If they are sufficiently free from inks and additives, they should be considered to be recyclable.
  • Natural and colored HDPE containers are widely accepted in recycling programs. They should sink in a float/sink operation, and any design decision that would modify this behavior should be avoided.
  • Almost all other plastic packages may be accepted in a “mixed plastic” recycling stream, but food residue and any non-polymer component is

    considered to be contamination and may exclude the package from the
    recycling stream.

Designing for Composting

Composting is the process through which organic constituents of bio-based materials are returned to the natural cycle. There are several different types of composting operations, but the most important distinction exists between backyard composting, which is done wholly by consumers, and industrial composting, which is undertaken on a large scale and tends to able to accommodate a wider range of materials.

The establishment of infrastructure and a system for collecting and processing organic materials is needed to ensure that compostable packages will be diverted from landfills. Rapid development of composting infrastructure is to be expected in the next ten years in Canada.

Keep in mind:

  • Most industrial composting programs that take municipal solid waste don’t accept packaging. Those that do accept packaging often collect waste only from institutions. It is rare for industrial composting operations to collect compostable packaging directly from consumers.
  • Food waste is highly desired by composters. Compostable packaging by itself may not provide much value to a composter, but residual food carried with the packaging creates considerable value
  • Compostable materials take a significantly longer time to break down in a backyard composting operation. Some materials that are compatible with industrial composting operations are not feasible for backyard composting operations.
  • No two industrial composting operations are exactly alike. Compatibility with some composting standards does not ensure that the package is compatible with every composting operation.

Questions to ask:

  • Who is the end user of the package? How likely are they to have access to a composting collection program?
  • How likely is a consumer to compost a package in a backyard composting operation? Will the package break down in a timeframe that is acceptable to
  • Are there any substances in the package (including all inks, adhesives, treatments, and additives) that might introduce ecotoxicity in a composting environment?
  • How long does it take the package to break down in industrial composting conditions? Is that timeframe within the standard expectations of industrial composters?
  • Is the end-user given clear and accurate instructions for composting the package?

Designing for Energy Recovery

Energy recovery operations capture the calorific value embodied within materials. There are many different types of energy recovery technologies, and each type is capable of using certain types of packages. Energy recovery is often regarded as the least preferable means of recovering value from used packaging, but it offers a beneficial alternative to landfilling and often is the best available recovery strategy when considered as one component of an overarching optimization strategy.

Keep in mind:

  • It is important to understand the acceptable inputs to the various types of energy recovery operations. Some accept only bio-based materials, others do not tolerate moisture well, while other types are capable of accepting almost any kind of waste.
  • Not all energy recovery operations accept waste from consumers. Many operations are optimized for specific waste streams and they may not accept mixed waste.

Questions to ask:

  • Who is the end user of the package? What is the likelihood that their waste ends up in an energy recovery operation?
  • What is the compatibility of the package with the type of energy recovery technology that is likely to process the end user’s waste?
  • Are there any substances in the package (including all inks, adhesives, treatments, and additives) that will create pollution during the energy recovery process?
Useful Measurements:
  • percentage of end-users with access to energy recovery programs
  • energy recovery rate
  • GPPS attribute: packaging recovery rate
Learn More: