Recycling, Sustainability

Making packaging design sustainable

13/05/2024 | 5 min read
Anita Gruber

 Recyclability and aesthetics are not mutually exclusive 

In order to convince consumers to buy a product, it often takes more than just an appealing product: the packaging can also arouse curiosity about the contents; in many cases, it is the packaging that makes the item visible on the shelf, distinguishes it from the competition and establishes a relationship with the buyer at first glance. For a long time, packaging - in addition to its actual purpose of protecting the product - therefore had to look good above all else. It had to be eye-catching, visually appealing and make the brand of the respective product tangible. At best, the packaging also had to be practical and easy to use. In recent years, however, the demands on packaging have changed massively. In addition to aesthetics and functionality, sustainability now also plays a major role. Even if packaging fulfills an important function, it usually only accompanies consumers for a limited time and should not simply become waste after use due to the recyclable materials it contains. In order to be able to continue using the valuable resources, the recyclability of the materials and decorations used must be taken into account as early as the packaging design stage. Packaging manufacturers thus assume responsibility for the environment: By focusing on sustainable packaging design and recyclability, the circular economy can reduce the consumption of non-renewable raw materials. This not only pays off in terms of climate protection. 

Why do we need “Design for Recycling”?

A technical cycle can only be closed if the products used in it are also recyclable. This means, among other things, that the recyclable materials must be clearly identified. This is why the design of packaging is so important for its recyclability. Small changes often significantly improve recyclability without compromising the main function. Recyclability, attractiveness and advertising effectiveness are not mutually exclusive. Depending on its purpose and nature, packaging should therefore be planned holistically. Positive factors for recyclability include bright colors, monomaterial instead of a mix of materials and optimized label and closure solutions.  


What does this mean in practice? Once the lightweight packaging has been disposed of, it is first sorted by machine. This is the only way to specifically recycle packaging of the same material in individual streams. The packaging is not shredded first, but sorted completely. Sorting is based on the physical properties of the various packaging materials - using processes such as screen classification, blowing with air nozzles, magnetic separation, etc. In addition to these mechanical sorting steps, there are further steps that use near-infrared spectroscopy to identify types of plastic. Packaging can only be recycled if it can be correctly identified. In the subsequent recycling process, the sorted packaging is shredded in several stages and various washing and separation processes are used to remove foreign matter. Depending on the application, the shredded material is either remelted into regranulates by extrusion or the flakes themselves are reused as post-consumer recycled plastic for new products.1  

Sustainable, practical, appealing: is there such a thing as perfect packaging?

Packaging manufacturers have the primary task of protecting products with their packaging. At the same time, they have to take product-specific quality criteria into account, for example to limit food waste. In addition to these essential criteria, factors such as climate protection, support for the circular economy and the efficient use of resources also play an important role. With so many points to consider, it is no wonder that there is no such thing as one absolutely perfect packaging that performs well in every area. Depending on the project, it may therefore be necessary to set priorities: Conflicting goals may well arise in the details - a low CO2e footprint does not automatically go hand in hand with recyclable packaging, for example, and recyclable packaging material with a small CO2e footprint is often not the most economical option. These conflicts must be weighed up and discussed, while all regulatory requirements for packaging must be met.  

The ONE sustainable packaging does not exist. Priorities must be set between price/profitability, quality/functionality, resource efficiency and circularity and decisions must be made depending on the project and requirements. 

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What do you need to look out for in terms of recyclability?

There are currently no Europe-wide criteria for the recyclability of plastic packaging. These are currently being developed as part of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR)2. The European Commission has commissioned CEN (the European Committee for Standardization) to develop standards for design for recycling. These are expected by 2025. The Commission can incorporate these standards into the delegated acts of the PPWR, but does not have to. Currently, the criteria differ in each country and are based on the local separation and recycling infrastructure and methods. However, the following questions have proven useful in assessing the recyclability of packaging:  

Packaging normally consists of several components. Components made of the same material or material combinations with different densities that are easy to separate are advantageous. 

There are corresponding streams for PP, PE, PET and PS; material streams are currently being developed in Europe for PET trays and PS. There are currently no recycling streams in Europe for PVC, PC, PLA or biodegradable plastics. If packaging material cannot be clearly assigned to a recycling stream, the packaging is automatically classified as non-recyclable. Throughout Europe, recycling systems are subject to constant change and are constantly evolving. 

  • Packaging can only be recycled if the material can be correctly identified and assigned to the correct stream. Accurate detection depends on the colors used, the decoration, separable material components, the geometry and the size of the packaging. 
  • Barrier materials and additives preserve the flavor and freshness of food, but can have a negative impact on the sortability of a package. It must be ensured that the density of the packaging is not altered by barriers and additives. 

Impurities or non-separable, non-recyclable components can reduce the recyclate quality or, in the worst case, make it unusable for further processing. 

Dos & don'ts for more sustainable packaging

Depending on the project, it may be necessary to focus on one pillar, so it is important to prioritize:  

  • Examine the use of sustainable plastic material (mechanically recycled, chemically recycled or biocircular material) instead of virgin material 

  • How can the packaging be made highly recyclable? 

    1. Use of materials with an existing recycling stream  

    2. Packaging sizes over 2 cm recommended (small packaging is easily lost in the sorting stream) 

    3. Packaging components made of the same material or combinations with different material densities 

    4. Easily removable / separable components 

    5. If possible, transparent, light or white pigmented material inks are recommended - as well as carbon black-free inks and masterbatches 

    6. Barrier: In general, as little EVOH as necessary. Ideally less than 6 % EVOH + PP-g-MAH 

  • How can the CO2e footprint be kept as small as possible? 

    1. Use of sustainable plastic material without changing the weight of the packaging. Preference for mechanically recycled material over chemically recycled and biocircular material 

    2. High recyclability also has a positive impact on the CO2e footprint.  

    3. Reduction of packaging weight as far as technically possible 


The following components, among others, should be avoided:  

  • Intense or dark prints 

  • Non-NIR-detectable masterbatch inks 

  • Silicone components, e.g. in closures 

  • Non-separable decoration on PET products 


There are many ways to improve packaging and increase recyclability - for the benefit of the environment and the society in which we want to live sustainably in the future.  

[2] Packaging: Council and Parliament strike a deal to make packaging more sustainable and reduce packaging waste in the EU - Consilium (

Disclaimer: Greiner Packaging does not provide legal advice, but we continuously monitor and evaluate the impact of legislative measures in all markets relevant to us. This document reflects our current state of knowledge in this regard. The aim of this factsheet is to develop packaging solutions in cooperation with our customers, taking into account the resulting conclusions. Greiner Packaging is not a certification body and does not offer opinions on the recyclability of individual products or materials. However, there are certain partners that we recommend to our customers. For the German market, we recommend assessments according to the cyclos-HTP method. For the European market, we recommend working with Recyclass. 

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