Is Sustainable Packaging and Recyclable Packaging the Same Thing?


The terms recyclable and sustainable packaging are increasingly used to describe products packaged in environmentally-friendly materials. Packaging described as being recyclable can be repurposed, recycled packaging has already been repurposed and sustainable packaging is intended for disposal in a manner that causes less environmental impact than single-use plastic. Find out more about the availability of these types of packaging through smart packaging suppliers.

What Is Sustainable Packaging?

Sustainable packaging is designed to minimize resource expenditure and waste across production, use and disposal. The materials used in this packaging are intended to be safe for end consumers and the communities where materials are disposed of or recycled. This term captures the sum total impact of the materials and resources that go into the production of packaging materials and the waste generated by disposal.

Many types of packaging are considered sustainable. This label can apply to paper packaging sourced from wood designated as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council as well as to packaging produced with recycled plastics. Other types of packaging that are designed to decompose to safe, non-toxic substances or be composted may also be considered sustainable. The use of sustainably grown or produced new materials and the existence of alternative disposal methods to recycling distinguish sustainable packaging from recyclable packaging.

What Types of Packaging Are Recyclable?

Monomaterial packaging is the most readily recyclable as long as the single material used can be recycled. Most packaging is multi-material and consists of films made out of two or more materials connected with adhesive or wax to create barriers that keep air and moisture out of consumables. Some packaging is made out of post-consumer recycled material and may be recycled again.

Recyclable materials may require specific disposal methods. For example, recyclable custom resealable bags made out of 100% polyethylene may bear a How2Recycle #2 Resin Identification Code. Some packaging can be disposed of through HDPE recycling streams, while other materials bear a store drop-off symbol.

How Do Sustainable and Recyclable Packaging Compare?

Sustainable packaging is developed with a mind toward responsible production and disposal methods. The newest types of packaging may be biodegradable or compostable. These methods differ from recycling, but are still oriented toward reducing waste production. Two of the most sustainable outcomes are decomposition into non-toxic substances or re-use through recycling.

Recyclable packaging is made of materials that can be processed and reused to create new items made with recycled material. Recycled materials have been repurposed. There may also be a limit on the number of times that some plastics can be recycled, which factors into overall sustainability. A brand may choose to prioritize the use of recycled or recyclable materials in product packaging or pursue another sustainable approach to production, packaging, distribution and disposal.

The meaning of the terms “sustainable” and “recyclable” overlap. Some sustainable packaging can be recycled through mixed HDPE streams or in-store drop-off programs. Recycled packaging consists of at least some percentage of repurposed material, which may be sustainable. Sustainability also refers to packaging made of new materials that are sourced and processed in sustainable ways.