We have all experienced the following situation or a similar one at least. While shopping, we look for product descriptions and notice a multitude of different symbols. But what do these labels really mean? And why are there so many? What is the difference between them?
In contrast to popular opinion, not all recycling symbols have the same meaning, nor even the same validity. To kick off this informational summary, it is probably best to start with the most common one.
This symbol is the most recognisable and universally accepted symbol that one immediately associates with recycling. Although the essence of this is true, the symbol was created by American college student Gary Anderson, who entered a contest launched by the Container Corporation of America in light of the first Earth Day in the year of 1970, it has ever since remained in the public domain. This in-itself means that anyone can freely use the symbol and make any changes to it without necessarily having to adhere to certain recycling standards. Therefore, it is commonly used as a marketing tool rather than a quality standard in recycling. There are multiple recognised variations of the symbol and it is generally understood to refer to a circular economy and worldwide recycling efforts.
This brings us to the next symbol. This one is merely called the Green Dot and was invented in 1991, as a result of the German government passing a packaging law that requires manufactures to take care of the disposal or recycling of any packaging material they sell. As a result, an agency was created which picked-up and sorted consumer waste next to the municipality schemes already in place. For the packages to be taken by said agency, the producers had to pay a fee in order to receive the permission to put said symbol on their packaging. To reiterate the basic idea behind the Green Dot is that the consumers who identify the logo on the packaging can conclude that the company providing the good is actively contributing to the cost of recovery, disposing and recycling of the materials used in the packaging. There are however still a few misconceptions that consumers hedge about the logo. The Green Dot logo is solely an indicator that the company has joined the Green Dot scheme for material recovery. This does not mean that the package or the materials used are fully recyclable.
The next logo that one will probably encounter and that poses headaches for packaging designers, is the FSC logo. This does not directly have anything to do with recycling, although it can be found on most paper based packaging solutions. FSC is short for Forest Stewardship Council and it basically refers to responsible sourcing of wood. It is basically the gold standard in protecting old-growth forests in addition to preventing the loss of natural forests for paper production. The shown label consisting of a checkmark and a tree is accompanied by a licencing number, which does not only allow for the possibility to trace the origins of the wood used in the production process of the packaging, but it also proves that the company in question adheres to the strict management process throughout their supply-chain. Aside from the mentioned aspects, FSC also engages in defending the rights of indigenous people, upholding water quality standards and it prohibits the use of hazardous chemicals during the production process.
As we have now established the groundwork for getting into the more confusing and technical aspects of labels that are commonly used to identify packaging materials, it is best to start with the most commonly used one. This being the logo referring to PET, short for Polyethylene Terephthalate. PET-plastics make up roughly 30%of the materials used in bottles production and about 60%of plastics used in clothing production. PET is the most widely recycled material in terms of plastics as it can be converted into a multitude of products. As mentioned it can be recycled into new bottles, it can be spun into fabrics to produce literally anything form shirts to bedding and can even be used as isolating material in clothing, such as winter jackets.
The next symbol that can be found is the HDPE logo. HDPE is an abbreviation for High-Density Polyethylene, which is another category of material commonly referred to as plastic. HDPE can easily be recycled in most of the municipalities in developed countries, it is however more difficult to recycle as PET, as it cannot be used in such a variety of applications. The material is both strong and lightweight replacing heavier materials in packaging. HDPE is commonly used to produce bags as well as being moulded into make-up pallets or other containers to even be shaped into outdoor furniture of palettes.
This leads us to PVC, short for Polyvinyl Chloride which is both a lightweight and strong plastic than can be found in a flexible as well as ridged form, depending on which other plasticisers (types of resins) PVC is mixed with. As with almost all plastics, PVC is also a pellet or powdery substance in its most crude form and can be mixed with pigments to literally create any desired colour variation.
Due to its chemical nature, PVC is based on chloride, it is not dependant on crude oil, which in itself sounds good but which makes it incompatible with other polymers. In addition to this PVC has another downside; it must be sorted out, stored and recycled with only PVC materials as even the smallest amount is considered to be extremely hazardous to streams and soil, as it can be absorbed and then later be transmitted to animals as well as humans.
The next label that one should be familiar with is the LDPE. This stands for Low-Density Polyethylene and has many applications. The use that most people are familiar with is the plastic shopping bag film due to its sturdiness and flexibility. LDPE is also frequently used in coating paper cups, milk cartons and other food containers to add strength and render those materials waterproof. However, the process of tightly layering materials such as paper cups with LDPE makes them less recyclable as the LDPE layer cannot be separated from the paper in a cost-effective and efficient manner. Therefore, products with a LDPE coating are usually not recycled but end up in landfills or incineration facilities.
Another commonly used label is the PP logo, denoted with a number 5 and refers to Polypropylene. This is a durable, rigid plastic that can be shaped into containers on which flexible handles can be fitted. A typical use of PP-plastic would be food containers for warm food as the high melting point of PP allows safe use with hot food items. Additionally, PP is now readily used in the production of plastic straws as it is a sturdy material and it doesn’t sink. To recycle PP, conglomerates such as P&G or Unilever are building markets especially for post-consumer PP as there is an increase in consumer usage.
The material associated with number 6 is PS which is an abbreviation for Polystyrene. This can be found in either a rigid and solid form, or it can be processed into Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) which is commonly referred to as Styrofoam. However, Styrofoam is merely a brand name for this type of material and was introduced to the market by Dow Chemical. Uses for the rigid for of Polystyrene are often disposable silverware, plates, toys as well as pieces of electronics. The Expanded variation of this is mainly used for protection and isolation purposes as it can be consisting of as much as 95% air, which renders it extremely lightweight whilst having the mentioned qualities. Unfortunately, once Polystyrene has been converted to the foam form, it can never be transformed back into regular PS which renders it unrecyclable.
This finally leads us to the last of the labelling. Number 7 is associated with literally any other kind of plastic. This is essentially the “catch-all” categoryfor plastics. It includes bioplastics, multi-sourced plastics, compostable and bio-degradable plastics as well as nylonwell as other variations including BPA (bisphenol), often used in food containers as well as plastic bottles. As to bio-plastics, these are made up of Polylactic Acid (PLA), a material gained from renewable and sustainable plant-based sources. This is in sharp contrast to plastics that are petroleum based. Although this type of plastic is biodegradable in certain circumstances and given the adequate environments, they still need industrial processing to be produced. Additionally, the right circumstances for bioplastics to decompose cannot be achieved at home or even in landfills.
In conclusion, while we are becoming more conscious about recycling given plastics, there is an undeniable truth. Plastic, although cheap and handy, can never fulfil the sustainable and environmentally-friendly requirements that our society so desperately needs. We cannot continue to clutter and essentially throw our plastic waste into landfills – or worse in the ocean. We need to accept and get used to different forms of packaging. Which form will be dominant in the future is still unknown but it cannot be plastic if we care even the slightest bit about our environment.
- Der Grüne Punkt – DSD company website
- American Plastics Council: PlasticInfo.org