100 percent recyclable! What’s in it and where is it going?

© Unsplash | Marcell Viragh

In the fifth article in our series on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), we look at the issue of fully recyclable packaging. In most companies, recyclability plays by far the dominant role compared to reusability or composting. We look at where the trend in materials is heading, who is making a particular mark, what the regulators are planning and why, despite all the success stories, we shouldn’t get too excited too soon. Spoiler: The masses are still on the wrong track.


The members of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have set themselves the goal of only using plastics that are 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

In 2020, this rate was just under 65 percent (2019: 60 percent). Recyclable packaging accounted for the largest share (64 percent). Only 2 percent of all packaging used was reusable, and only less than 0.02 percent was compostable.



“Recyclability” is certified by different institutions and the EPR system “Grüner Punkt” even already offers a label for this. Nevertheless, the term itself is not yet uniformly defined throughout Europe. In practical implementation, everything also depends on the local infrastructure, which can be quite different, and the collection, sorting, and recycling technologies used in each case.

Nevertheless, the issue of recyclability continues to play the dominant role for many companies. In the food sector in particular, some packaging companies have already achieved the 100 percent quota in terms of recyclability. Preferred strategies are the use of mono-materials; commonly PP, PE and PET.


Mono-materials in trend

In improving recyclability through mono-materials, PET-based mono-films were initially favoured in the flexible packaging sector. Currently, the trend in flexible form-fill-seal (FFS) applications is more towards PP-based mono-materials, followed by PE-based ones. As PET, PP as well as PE-based solutions are increasingly equipped with recyclable barriers, a phase-out of aluminium is also conceivable in the medium term.


Pushing (retail) brands

The big retail brands in particular pursue the goal of 100% recyclability.

  • Aldi Süd has announced “recyclability for all packaging by 2022” for own brands.
  • Lidl wants to “make 100% of own-brand packaging maximally recyclable by 2025”.
  • But brands are also doing well. In Germany, for example, Nestlé says it has already achieved 97 percent recyclability and aims to reach 100 percent by 2025. One example of this effort is the conversion of the Smarties tube. Formerly a combination of cardboard for the tube body and plastic for the closure, Nestlé has switched to a pure cardboard solution.


Packaging examples for recyclability

  • Rigid Packaging: Here, the changeover has already taken place in many areas. Examples are cups in the food sector.
  • Flexible packaging: Here, for example, Werner & Mertz with its Frosch brand has switched its stand-up pouches to mono-PE material (100 percent which come from the household collection).


Regulators push as well

Upcoming legal regulations are also pushing the trend towards recyclability. One central development, for example, is the action plan for the circular economy within the framework of the EU’s “Green Deal”. It came into force in the fourth quarter of 2021 and requires the exclusive use of reusable or recyclable products from 2030.


The masses are on the wrong track (so far)

One should not be deceived by the already achieved high values of EMF members in terms of recyclability. These are frontrunners that are not (yet) representative of the industry as a whole. The increased jubilations at relevant trade fairs and from communication departments can also easily create a false impression.

Because the mass of the market is still not on the right track. And unfortunately, this is how it will remain as long as there is a lack of clear specifications and definitions. Because that is what is needed to help the topic achieve a breakthrough across markets, sectors and segments. So, there is still a lot to do.

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