Designing with Recyclability in Mind

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By: Ian Montgomery

It’s no secret that plastic packaging is far from sustainable. Globally, only 14% of plastic is collected for recycling. Plastic often makes its way into our oceans, where it doesn’t biodegrade—currently the ratio of plastic to fish in the ocean is 1:5, and that number is expected to grow to 1:1 by 2050. However, plastic’s lightweight, low cost, and strong liquid barrier make it an often-picked material option. When avoiding plastic entirely isn’t an option, here are a few surprising tips to ensure that the packaging we design can properly be recycled.

1. Don’t use black plastic

Even though black plastic is technically recyclable, chances are if a black plastic package ends up at a recycling center in the United States, it won’t get recycled. Many municipal recycling systems use infrared sorters that can’t understand black resins, so the black plastic does not register and ends up going straight to the landfill. When recycling plants resell materials, the value for black plastic is quite low—so even if it could be sorted properly, chances are that it wouldn’t be recycled. Clear and light colored plastics have the highest chance of actually being recycled since they don’t discolor other plastics.

Rock Art Brewery in Vermont switched its six packs rings from a black plastic to a green and white rings after learning that their local recycling center would not be able to process black plastic. https://cswd.net/recycling/vermont-breweries-swap-black-plastic/

2. Don’t fully cover a container with shrink-sleeve labels

Sam Silver at Sims Municipal Recycling in New York advised, “Oftentimes optical sorters aren’t able to properly identify materials that are underneath full shrink-sleeve labeling, which you see in a variety of beverages and yogurt products.” Sims has seen a lot of interest from brands becoming aware of this issue and redesigning their packaging to reduce the size of the labels or add transparency to the labels to help ensure that these products can be successfully recycled. So if you’re using a shrink-sleeve label, be sure to leave a significant portion of the plastic container exposed.

3. Don’t make anything too small

At least 2.5” inches in any direction (length, width, height) is a good guide in order to ensure that packaging doesn’t slip through the industry standard screen size used to sort out crushed glass and other particulates. Bottle caps, utensils, plastic straws, and sometimes even prescription bottles tend fall through that 2.5” gap and end up in a landfill instead of the recycling stream.

4. Keep PET (♲1) bottles clear, light blue, or light green

Amber, red or other opaque colored PET bottles, although technically recyclable, have almost no market. After recycling is sorted, it is baled and sold domestically or internationally. Each color of each type of plastic has a certain price that varies according to the market, similar to gold or oil. Unfortunately, the price of red, amber, and other opaque PET colors is usually so low that it isn’t economical for recycling centers to sell them, so instead these colored bottled end up in landfills.

5. Avoid plastic bags and films whenever possible

These are a nightmare to recycle, less than 1% for LDPE was recycled 2012.

6. Check and test

Have questions about something you’re working on? Almost every city has different abilities of what they can and can’t recycle. Consult the APR guidelines for plastic that uses best practice for across the United States.

Also you can consult your local recycling center about testing the recyclability of packaging you are working on. Sims in New York is one of the progressive centers open to working with designers to ensure the recyclability of packaging.


Ian Montgomery
Ian Montgomery is a New York-based designer with an interest in sustainable materials and packaging.