Getting Started with Design for Recycling

4 Apr, 2023

Design plays a crucial role in the recycling of plastic products and packaging. It influences not only the recyclability of the materials but also the end-of-life options available. A well-designed product or packaging can make it easier to sort, process, and reuse the materials, while poor design can result in waste and hindrance to recycling efforts.

Good design practices include using standardized shapes and materials, avoiding mixed materials, and ensuring clear labeling of recyclable and non-recyclable components. This helps consumers putting it the right bin and sorting facilities and recycling centers to identify, separate, and process the materials effectively.

What is design for recycling?

The “dissection” of a product for understanding the material composition.

Design for recycling is a process that involves designing products and plastic packaging with the ultimate goal of becoming recycled materials. The aim is to create products and packaging that are easy to recycle, made from recyclable materials, and that can be transformed into new products through different manufacturing processes.

The benefits of design for recycling include reducing waste, reducing the reliance on finite resources, promoting a circular economy and ultimately reducing environmental impact.

EU regulation

The carrot and the stick

The European Union has ambitious goals when it comes to reducing plastic waste and promoting the circular economy. The EU has introduced several measures aimed at reducing the amount of plastic waste, including the Single Use Plastics Directive, which seeks to reduce the use of single-use plastics and promote the use of reusable alternatives.

Another important directive when it comes to design for recycling is the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which require member states to adopt measures making producers accountable for financing and organizing the collection, treatment, and disposal of waste generated by their products. The EU is also working on measures to improve the recyclability of plastic products and packaging, including mandatory recycling targets, product regulation and measures to enforce this.

Tools & Guidelines

There are several recycling guidelines that help us in our daily life with design for recycling.  One of our favorites is RecyClass, established by the European Plastics Recycling and Recovery Organisation (EPRO). RecyClass provides a EU standard for the recyclability of products and packaging, supporting designers, manufacturers and brands on how to improve overall recyclability of plastic products. They provide a handy tool to rate recyclablity of specific products and packaging and give advice to how improve it. Other helpful guidelines are:

1. The circular design guide from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

2. For packaging the design for recycling guidelines by Circpack (Suez)

3. For the US market the APR recycling guidelines are usefull.


The Recyclass scoring label.

Getting started with Design for Recycling


5 takeaways

Here are 5 key takeaways that designers & engineers should keep in mind in the design stage.

1. Material Selection

The first step in designing for recycling is to choose recyclable plastics. Different types of plastic (polymer types) have varying levels of recyclability and are processed differently. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is widely recyclable, while polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is not. Designers should choose materials that are easily recyclable and compatible with existing recycling processes. Look for guidelines or just contact plastic recyclers.

2. Simplicity is Key

Simple designs are easier to recycle and reduce waste. Analyse design features, different parts or complex shapes are harder to take apart and recycle. Designers should aim for simplicity in their designs, making use of fewer materials and avoiding unnecessary complexity. Incresing simplicity often makes products also more cost-effective.

3. Standardization

The recycling process is more efficient when products and packaging are standardized. This makes it easier for recycling facilities to process the materials with current mechanical recycling technology without being mixed with other waste streams. Designers should strive to create products and packaging that are standardized and compatible with an existing recycling system on industrial scale.

4. Promote recycling

Proper labeling is crucial for the success of recycling. Products and packaging should be clearly labeled with the type of plastic used, as well as any recycling symbols. This information helps the consumer to dispose the product or packaging materials in the right way, increasing the likelihood of the material being recycled into a new raw material.

5. Minimize Contamination

This is about the best material composition, it means avoiding the use of multiple types of plastics attached to each other (multilayers), and avoid adding additves in plastic which are hard to recycle (e.g. glass fibre) or downgrade the overall quality (talcum). This also increases the economic value of the material end of life.

PP (polypropylene) is a plastic which is commonly good recyclable.

Logo for discarding packaging in plastic waste in the Netherlands.