Hi-Cone Survey Reveals Consumer Confusion over Recycling

For several decades, packaging on plastic bottles and containers of various types and sizes has been labeled with a triangle surrounding a number. That number — one through seven — was supposed to help consumers determine what to do with that bottle or container when they were done with the contents. While it sounds easy, this method didn’t always work for consumers, who often felt confused about what was recyclable and what wasn’t.

recycling bin in a maze

Hi-Cone, a global supplier of ring carrier multi-packaging systems for the beer and non-alcoholic ready-to-drink beverage markets, surveyed 5,500 adult consumers across four markets — Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and United States — and found that 91% of consumers believe that recycling plastic is beneficial yet 69% said they weren’t recycling enough. The majority of adults (80%) who do not currently recycle all of their plastic waste reported that they would recycle plastic more frequently if they had more facilities and/or guidance, with 60% of adults agreeing that they do not know how to recycle some types of plastic packaging.

Another problem that Hi-Cone uncovered was the uncertainty among consumers over which packaging material is better for the environment: 18% of adults reported being unsure if non-plastic packaging, such as cardboard, glass, and cans, is better for the environment than plastic packaging; 36% said they were unsure if it takes more energy and natural resources to recycle plastic than paper; and 30% reported being unsure if using a small amount of plastic packaging can be better for the environment than a large amount of a different packaging material, such as cardboard.

In other words, consumer education is critical to the success of recycling. Consumers want good information when it comes to what and how to recycle. It’s up to the plastics industry — trade organizations, producers, and processors — to provide that education. Instead, many consumers are being eco-shamed into rejecting plastic packaging, such as retail bags and take-out containers, without knowing what alternatives are any better.

Unfortunately, many consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies respond by making promises of greater recyclability, biodegradability, or compostability. They put labels on the bottles or containers that indicate one of those three end-of-life possibilities, when many of these claims turn out to be nothing more than virtue-signaling with the intent of making consumers have a “feel-good” experience.

Hi-Cone Vice President and General Manager Shawn Welch acknowledged the challenges the packaging industry faces as sustainability has become a major focus in recent years. “There is a great need to create a more transparent process and clear guidance for consumers when it comes to the development of a circular economy and better recycling practices. Only by understanding consumer beliefs, national programs and global goals, can the industry make real progress in sustainability.”

More and more industry trade associations in North America and Europe are calling for CPGs to get real when it comes to making claims about their packaging. Part of that must include truth in labeling. For example, don’t say that your plastic packaging is compostable if you know there are few or no commercial composting facilities that will accept that package. I’m not sure that even saying it’s “compostable wherever there is a commercial composting facility that will accept this package” is enough to justify using the word compostable on the package.

As for the term “biodegradable” (which is not permitted in California), most consumers have this visual of a plastic water bottle or container that can be tossed out of the car window onto the side of the road disappearing in a few weeks. Again, that is misleading to the consumer.

Hi-Cone has been making strides in its own sustainability journey, the company pointed out, including the formation of several cross-industry partnerships, such as TerraCycle in the UK, and the launch of their 50%+ post-consumer recycled content product, RingCycles, which reduces the company’s use of virgin plastic by half. The company’s goal is to educate consumers on how to reduce plastic consumption and how to recycle in a circular economy, an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources.

“Open communication between the industry and the public will help prevent further environmental risk down the road by stopping the current trend of solving one problem and replacing it with an even bigger one,” said Welch. A recent Green Alliance report warned of the potential environmental risks of banning plastic packaging in favor of other materials that have larger carbon footprints and, therefore, can be seen as detrimental to the environment. “Better communication will help us find a real solution,” added Welch.

Image: Talaj/Adobe Stock

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