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Consumers are more likely to buy goods with clearer recycling directions: DS Smith survey

An operator moves a bale of paper waste with a forklift
DS Smith has surveyed over 1,000 people regarding consumer recycling.

If retailers want to attract and keep more environmentally conscious consumers in today's demanding marketplace, their products should have clearer directions on recycling, according to a national survey by sustainable packaging leader DS Smith.

Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of those polled say they're more likely to purchase those well-marked products, yet another sign of environmental concerns driving shopper preferences. Overall, 59 percent say disposal instructions on items are hard to find and 62 percent say there's a lot of conflicting advice on recycling.

DS Smith has also unveiled the "Dirty Dozen" – the top 12 items being put into mixed or paper recycling streams but are harder to recycle due to plastic and food contamination. Among the most common culprits are junk mail, glittery wrapping paper, padded envelopes, sandwich wrappers, and microwavable food trays.

DS Smith regularly tests public sentiment as part of its focus on creating innovative and sustainable packaging solutions, designing out waste and supporting the reuse of materials to support the circular economy.

"We're committed to helping our customers be more circular and educating their customers as well, and this requires collaboration across business, municipalities, and consumers," said Toby Earnest, head of recycling for DS Smith in North America. "We all need to be aware of plastic and other unrecyclable items that can cause significant challenges at paper mills, adding additional costs and waste into paper making. There is also a significant environmental impact when large volumes of any of the ‘Dirty Dozen' end up in paper recycling streams."

The survey revealed sharp awareness by consumers of the important role they play – with 78 percent saying their recycling efforts are helping the environment and 72 percent having access to at-home or curbside recycling.

The poll indicated that while a majority of consumers embrace recycling, many are unsure what items can be – and that means too many throwaways are being put into mixed or paper recycling streams that shouldn't be.

To help consumers, the company identified the "Dirty Dozen," the top 12 consumer items tripping up recycling:

  • Food trays: Cardboard food trays used in the oven often contain lamination that makes them difficult to break down in the paper-making process. They are also often contaminated with food, which is not permitted for recycling.
  • Pulp fruit trays: These trays often contain low-quality weak fibres, meaning they are not strong enough to be made into other paper packaging products.
  • Food cartons: The plastic layer coating some cardboard cartons is difficult to break down and clings to the cardboard, reducing its recyclability.
  • Potato chip tubes: Known as composite packaging, these tubes contain over 50 percent of non-paper materials that cannot be recycled at paper mills.
  • Glittery gift wrap and greetings cards: Gift wrap and cards wrapped in plastic or containing glitter or metal can cause damage to recycling machinery.
  • Padded envelopes: The high volume of plastic in padded envelopes makes it difficult to separate the cardboard and plastic elements.
  • Sandwich wrappers: Plastic lamination on sandwich packaging (up to 20 percent of the wrapper) makes it difficult to separate the cardboard and plastic elements. Food contamination also hurts the quality of recyclable materials.
  • Insulated food delivery packaging: Waterproof fibre packaging takes longer to break down and contains plastic thermal layers that cause contamination issues at the mills.
  • Coffee bags and pouches: Metal coatings on coffee bags can break into glitter-like parts, contaminating the finished paper.
  • Wax and silicone papers: Like those on sticks of butter, wax and silicone coatings make it difficult for paper machines to access the recyclable fibres, and those that are retrieved often are of poor quality.
  • Fast food soft drink cups: These often can be double laminated, making it even more difficult to be broken down and the recyclable fibres retrieved.

DS Smith also is working with the packaging supply chain to tackle the issue of hard-to-recycle packaging products. Its research and development team also is exploring ways to replace packaging solutions and applications that contain hard-to-recycle plastics.

DS Smith's packaging products are designed using its proprietary Circular Design Principles, which were developed in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. All of DS Smith's 700 designers have been trained on how to apply the principles to design packaging solutions fit for the Circular Economy, and help its customers reach their corporate sustainability and ESG goals.

The poll was conducted March 8-9 with 1,007 respondents, a total that generally has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Company info

720 Laurel St.,
Reading, PA
US, 19602


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