New civic skill: Recycling

The amount of trash humankind produces is bigger than ever. Yet many of us don’t recycle enough, as many feel that recycling is simply too difficult and too inconvenient, and we just don’t trust the process. What’s going on?


The World Bank estimates that the world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually. For more than 50 years, recycling, sustainability and responsibility have been topics no one can avoid. They’re words we see on bins, the boxes we purchase and in big pamphlets and political initiatives

In 2018, EPA estimated the total recycling and composting rate to be 32%. Recycling plastic has since become an even bigger topic, because only 9% of the world’s plastic is currently recycled. While corrugated cardboard boxes have traditionally been very well recycled, there’s always more that can be done.

A global survey states that 84% of respondents feel recycling is very important. However, the same survey reveals that the main reason for not recycling is the same everywhere globally; there aren’t enough infographics and services to enable recycling. Americans tend to find recycling inconvenient, and in Western Europe, respondents tend not to trust the recycling programmes.

But whose responsibility is it really to encourage recycling? Is it consumers, who should just recycle better and more efficiently? Is it companies, who should inform consumers better about recycling practices and make creative incentives? Or is it policymakers, who should enforce policies to make this all happen on a bigger level? The dilemma is a story as old as time, but let’s take a closer look.

Consumers are confused and discouraged by the lack of information but could be encouraged by incentives

For consumers, recycling is still confusing, and the more we have to separate waste into different bins, the more questions it raises. People simply don’t know what can be recycled, and what to do with it. European countries have somewhat unified labelling for recycling different materials, but there are still differences, and more than 200 environmental labels are currently active in the EU! The quite widely used Green Dot label is perceived as meaning the product or package can be recycled, but it just means the producer has financially contributed to recycling schemes . There is a lot of variation between processes in various American counties and states too. There are also differences between countries in where the recycling takes place – as one puts the waste into the correct bins, or after the bins have been collected, and the contents sorted by various facilities. With the rise of online shopping, the markings on the boxes may be seen completely differently in the arrival countries.

Even the question of what is recycled, what is recyclable, and the difference between them is difficult. For instance, despite the promising name, a package said to be made from ecological materials isn’t always recyclable or biodegradable, which confuses a lot of consumers. And just remembering what the different labels and codes mean is pretty difficult!

So how can we consumers be tempted and encouraged to recycle more and better? Learning the different recycling labels by heart is definitely one thing, but other innovations are also happening in the world. Plastic bottles and cans have been returned to supermarkets for a refund in the Nordic countries for a long time and returning plastic bottles in Beijing can earn free train tickets and phone credits.

In Cleveland, more drastic measures have been taken to encourage recycling. Recycling bins have a radio frequency that alerts you when the bin hasn’t been put on the curb for weeks. Trash supervisors then conduct an inspection, and if more than 10% of recycling has ended up in the trash can, there’s a 100 dollar fine. Maybe it’s time to learn those recycling labels?

Companies’ struggle: how can recycling be encouraged?

Companies producing the products and their packages also play a role in what happens to them and how they can be recycled. If the products are not made of materials that can be recycled or reused, there is little consumers can do, even if they knew how to recycle and are motivated to do it. But let’s see how brands have tackled the issue to encourage consumers to recycle!

Kellogg’s is trialling paper lining in their cereal boxes to make them fully recyclable. On top of that, they also have detailed instructions on how to recycle their packaging. Mars Maltesers have changed their packaging material, and it’s now fully recyclable. Puma have redesigned their shoe packaging so that it doubles as a bag, making it unnecessary to use another bag for the shoes.

In Brazil, Unilever has teamed up with local parties to create drop-off points where consumers can bring used packages and be encouraged to recycle even more. Grocery chains like Tesco, Carrefour and Walgreen’s use Loop shipping boxes and bags, which consumers can return for a refund. In France, Yoyo has connected participants with expert recycling coaches, who help them sort the recyclables into the correct bags. They have trained and encouraged sorters, who in turn have earned points and rewards such as movie tickets for collecting and storing full Yoyo bags. In recent years, the community has grown to 450 coaches, and 15,400 sorters and has collected almost 4.3 million plastic bottles. Pretty cool!

Policies and legislation – what role do they play?

Governments play a major role in legislation to enforce recycling. Due to growing public concern, especially about plastic, governments need to act urgently to encourage more and better recycling. Let’s take a look at what different countries, states and entities are doing!

In the US, more than 37 states have already banned single-use plastic goods, holding producers responsible for product disposal. In Los Angeles, companies get a tax break based on how much they recycle, restaurants are required to compost their food waste, and an initiative, “Rethink LA”, helps residents grasp the importance of recycling.

On the other side of the world, the government in China is increasing recycling rates by expanding the rubbish classification system to all cities and charging waste management fees for both residential and commercial waste. Shanghai is one of the first participating cities, and a misclassification of rubbish results in a fine, which is separate for individuals (USD 30), commercial entities (USD 3,700) and recyclers (USD 70,000).

In Europe, several EU-level initiatives are also under preparation. The Green Claims Initiative aims to require companies to substantiate their “green claims” against standard methodology to provide consumers with reliable, comparable and verifiable information on the environmental impacts of products. The Sustainable Product Initiative (SPI) proposes additional measures to make products placed on the EU market more sustainable. Meanwhile, the review on packaging and packaging waste directive (PPWD) aims to harmonise EU requirements and rules for packaging to strengthen the implementation of waste targets, one of them being that packaging on the EU market is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030. Packaging functionality should be protected and recognised to ensure that the intended use of packages is fulfilled. Single-use products are also a focus at EU level, as the EU is aiming to prevent and reduce the impact of certain plastic products on the environment.

So, who has the solutions?

The dilemma of responsibility for recycling calls for more cooperation between US states and European countries, a unified infrastructure, and applicable and understandable shared labels and processes to make recycling as easy and simple as possible. And we’re happy to report that some projects are already happening!

4evergreen is bringing the fibre based packaging value chain together by giving tools to improve recyclability of fibre based packaging.The goal is to get recycling rate up to 90 %. To make it easier for companies to make their decisions on packaging, they also include design guidelines so that the design and packaging is as suitable as possible for the current recycling systems around the world.

Another example of industry collaboration, 4everpack, is working to increase the ways in which packages are reused. We like!

Many important projects are taking place to join forces to increase recycling, and we can’t wait to see what else will happen this year!

What can we do as consumers?

As we’ve shown, the topic of recycling has many sides and players. What can we do as individuals to speed up the process?

  1. Try to learn the most common recycling labels in your area and recycle accordingly. Don’t be fooled by all the green colours and fancy words!
  2. When deciding to buy something, try to support companies and manufacturers that make recycling their priority – whether its products made from recyclable materials or incentives to encourage people to recycle. If you think a brand is taking great and interesting action to encourage recycling, let them and your friends know!
  3. Legislation plays a big role in what gets recycled and how, so it’s important to pay attention to who and what initiatives we vote for. In the next election in your area, look up what the candidates say about recycling.

Clear instructions on packaging encourage recycling

Tiina Kotipelto Development Manager, Sustainability, Kesko
Kesko has taken steps to increase recyclability of Pirkka products by including a label explaining how to recycle the package. What led to this decision and what was the decision process like?

At Kesko we want to make sorting and recycling as easy as possible for our customers, and 1,5 million customer encounters a day give us valuable insight into consumer expectations. A study we carried out in autumn 2020 showed that three out of four customers considered written sorting instructions easier to understand than symbols. 

We know that our customers value the opportunity to make responsible choices that make everyday life easier.  For example, RINKI eco take-points in connection with K-food stores are really important to our customers. K-food stores receive and recycle some 660 million plastic, glass and aluminum deposit bottles last year.

Recycling instructions can vary widely, how did you choose these labels? What kind of feedback have you gotten for the updated recycling instructions?

Earlier we received customer feedback regarding sorting instructions that they are not very understandable. To make sorting as easy as possible, we made the decision to add all packaging of more than 3,000 Pirkka, Pirkka Parhaat and K-Menu products with verbal sorting instructions that replace the pictorial recycling symbols.

Increasing recycling rates is not a simple task and requires all players to take part. What can retailers and brands do to increase and encourage recycling? 

Everyone has a role to play in turning sustainability and circular economy into action. 

Each of us can minimize the environmental impact of packaging by sorting it correctly – household waste is also a valuable raw material for new products.

To promote recycling and circular economy, it requires development throughout the value chain. This value chain covers everything from raw materials, design and manufacturing of products to logistics, retail and consumers. Hopefully in the future we will talk more about the value circle.

Who do you think has the biggest role in recycling; consumers, brands and retailers or policy makers?

It is important for brands and the retail sector that recyclable packaging is introduced to the market. Together with our suppliers, we are constantly seeking new ways to add easily recyclable or reusable packaging and circular economy products to our selections. Our objective is that by the end of 2025, all packaging for our own brand products will be recyclable or reusable.

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