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Household Waste Analysis Results: Packaging Design Key in Consumer Sorting Practices

Increased circularity in the packaging sector requires more recyclable materials, but also better sorting practices from consumers. But what influences certain consumer behaviours when it comes to waste sorting? What types of packaging and instructions promote or hinder circular behaviours? The CIAP’s Club for Sustainable Packaging Solutions addressed these questions hands-on: with a household waste analysis in the city of Solingen.

Most of the current packaging consists of different materials – think of aluminium lids on plastic cups of yogurt as a prime example. If we stick to the yogurt cup, a consumer would need to separate the lid from the cup, remove the cardboard sleeve, and clean the cup for the sorting to be completely effective. Oftentimes, there are no clear sorting instructions and the process is perceived as too complex from a consumer perspective. To achieve better recyclability, consumers need to be able to separate and sort accordingly and easily. A better understanding of consumer decisions and behaviours is the basis for designing interventions that generate more circularity. The household analysis in Solingen looked for cues about what triggers better sorting practices and what doesn’t. For this purpose, both the recyclable and the residual garbage bins of 15 households of different sizes and demographic structures were analysed. Highlights from the findings per product category include:

Dairy product cups
Lid off or lid on? For the recycling of the aluminium lid, this makes a big difference. In our sample, the lids were removed from exactly half of the 228 cups. A clear difference was observed in the size of the cups: larger cups (400ml and above) were separated significantly more often (78%) than smaller ones (37%).

Thermoformed packaging with sealing foil
The lids or foils were removed in about one third of the packaging. However, the hypothesis that hygiene factors could possibly have an influence in the sorting behaviour of fresh meat or fish packaging could not be confirmed.

Plastic bottles of hygiene and cleaning products
Despite that most households do not separate waste in bathrooms and laundry facilities, plastic bottles of hygiene products interestingly recorded the most accurate sorting. The hypothesis is that either these bottles are generally too large to ignore their recycling potential or, another factor, namely that most waste bins in bathrooms are too small for these bottles to fit in. While 95% of the plastic bottles were placed correctly into the recyclable bin, only 2 of the 116 bottles had the lid removed. Here, we found fundamental deficiencies in packaging design, since many lids (e.g. of shampoo bottles) can only be removed with great force. In addition, clear instructions on how to sort a certain packaging were also lacking. The nationwide education campaign of the Dual Systems’ initiative Waste Separation Works (Mülltrennung Wirkt) is trying to address this problem.

In addition to the evaluation of the predefined packaging categories, the club members were able to observe other phenomena that could complicate the recycling of packaging resources. As recyclable materials require a lot of space in the waste container, but most of such packaging is light in terms of weight, different types of packaging get stuck inside each other which may significantly hamper the recycling process and regaining of all recyclable materials.

The aim of the Club for Sustainable Packaging Solutions is to work with stakeholders in integrating consumer insights into the development of sustainable (circular) packaging and generate new solutions. The general findings of the project will be made available to SMEs and transferred to the EU level in the form of policy recommendations through the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform.

The Consumer Insight Action Panel (CIAP) is a non-profit initiative led by the CSCP and funded by Sitra and Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU), in partnership with the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform.

For further questions, please contact Stephan Schaller.