Packaging recycling information sheet

* packaging materials     * packaging recycling symbols and logos
* why bother?        * what does the law say?
* how's, what's and where's of recycling packaging * useful contacts


Packaging can be defined as materials used for the containment, protection, handling, delivery, and presentation of goods. Packaging can be divided into three broad categories:

Because of its large volume, packaging waste tends to be very visible. Approximately 70% of primary packaging is used for food and drink which is often discarded in a dirty state and contaminated by residues of the original contents.

The UK produced an estimated 9.3 million tonnes of waste packaging in 2001. Of this 5.1 million tonnes came from households and the remaining 4.2 million tonnes from commercial and industrial sources.

Packaging materials  top of page

The most common types of material used for packaging are paper, board, plastic, glass, steel and aluminium.

Percentage weight of different packaging materials Percentages of packaged goods by material

Source: INCPEN, Towards greener households, June 2001


Paper and board are the most widely used packaging materials in terms of weight. Paper and board account for 43% by weight of all packaging and are used to pack 25% of all goods.Paper and board packaging make up 6.4% of the overall content of the typical household dustbin. For further information on paper and cardboard recycling see Waste Watch's Paper information sheet.

Plastic packaging accounts for 20% of the weight of all packaging and 53% of all goods are packaged in plastics. Because of its low weight and relative strength, plastic is one of the most energy efficient, robust and economic delivery methods available.

Even though plastics can be recycled, there are fewer recycling collection facilities than for other types of packaging waste and only 23% of plastics packaging waste was recycled in the UK in 2001.This is partially because plastic has a high volume to weight ratio, which can make recycling collections of plastic packaging waste less efficient than the collection of other recyclables which weigh more. Plastic also has a high calorific content, which allows energy recovery methods to be utilised efficiently if recycling is not possible.

The lack of end-markets for mixed and single stream plastics also forms a barrier to increased plastics recycling. Recycled plastics can be used for a variety of products, such as garden furniture, flower pots and containers, fibres and new packaging materials. For further information on plastic recycling see Waste Watch's Plastics information sheet.

Glass accounts for 20% of the weight of all packaging and 10% of all goods are packaged in glass.Glass can be recycled easily, and well established collection and recycling systems exist in the UK. The first bottle banks appeared in 1977, and there are now roughly 50,000 on some 20000sites around the country, usually located at civic amenity sites and supermarkets. Seven billion glass containers were produced in the UK in 2003 and the recycling rate has remained relatively constant at approximately 33% since 2000. This contrasts with much higher recycling rates of 80-90% achieved by other European countries. The reason these countries recover more glass for recycling is that they have a much more developed collection infrastructure. For further information on glass recycling see Waste Watch's Glass information sheet.

Aluminium is used packaging applications such as beverage and food cans, foils and laminates. It has a high value as a scrap metal and can be recycled economically. An estimated five billion aluminium cans were used in the UK in 2001, 42% of which were recycled. The total recycling rate for all types of aluminium (including aluminium foil, food trays, etc.) was 24% in 2002. For further information on aluminium recycling see Waste Watch's Metals information sheet.

Steel containers are used to package a wide range of products, including food, paint and beverages as well as aerosols. In the UK, thirteen billion steel cans are produced each year. Up to a quarter of new steel cans - more than three billion cans - are made from recycled steel. It is relatively easy to separate through magnetic extraction, making it the world's most commonly recycled material. The recycling rate for steel packaging, including transport packaging, such as steel drums and bale wire, was 42% in 2002. For further information on steel recycling see Waste Watch's Metals information sheet.

Mixed material packaging can in some cases have the benefits of being more resource and energy efficient than single material packaging, but combining materials makes recycling difficult. An example of this type of packaging is 'Tetra Pak' which typically consists of 75% paper, 20% polyethylene and 5% aluminium foil. Although many beverages are sold in this type of packaging, there is currently only one facility to recycle these in Fife, Scotland. There is potential to reprocess mixed materials packaging into other products such as floor coverings, shoe soles and car mats.

Why bother?  top of page

The increased use of packaging provides a physical barrier between a product and the external environment thereby ensuring hygienic conditions and reducing the risk of product wastage due to contamination. This is particularly important in the case of food and beverage products. In the life cycle of food products, the highest energy input takes place during the production process. Appropriate packaging ensures that this energy is not wasted. Some packaging is also needed for safe and efficient transportation. Packaging is also used to provide customers with product information and usage instructions, some of which are required by law.

Packaging has developed to a large extent in response to social and economic changes affecting consumers. Higher living standards in the western world have led to an increase in consumer goods and tastes for exotic foods, which cannot be grown locally and must be imported. A trend towards urbanisation in the last century, which creates longer distances between food producers in rural areas and consumers in urban areas, has also led a greater demand for packaging. Other contributing factors are the increases in working families along with the increase in microwaves and freezers, and smaller family units.

As these issues illustrate, to achieve a change towards more sustainable products, it is not just the packaging that requires alterations but also our lifestyles and consumption habits.

How's, what's and where's of recycling packaging  top of page

Packaging recovery and recycling (tonnes)

Packaging recovery and recycling (tonnes)

Packaging recycling as a percentage of total material recycling

Packaging recycling as a percentage of total material recycling

Source publication: e-Digest of Environmental Statistics, Published February 2004

Reduce: Many people are concerned about the amount of packaging products are sold in and try to avoid goods that they consider are 'over-packaged'. An example of over-packaging is the use of standardised boxes. This can lead to void space in the package, which is both a wasteful use of resources and misleading for consumers. In Korea, over-packaging is being prevented through legislative standards for certain types of packaging. For example, processed foods can have no more than 15% of the volume of the package taken by void space, and no more than two layers enclosing the product.

Avoid buying small containers where possible. An example might be to purchase one large bottle of drink instead of individual small bottles or cans.

Reuse: The most direct way to recover packaging is by reusing it in its original form. However the environmental impacts of washing and transportation have to be taken into consideration. Reusable packaging has to be sturdier to withstand cleaning processes, increased transportation and handling. This leads to increased material and energy use during its manufacture. Recycling activities also have an environmental impact, mainly in terms of energy consumption, because recyclables need to be transported, cleaned and reprocessed before they can be turned into new products. In some circumstances, it can therefore be less environmentally beneficial to recycle packaging, for example very small light-weight items such as cling-film. To identify packaging needs and optimise performance, a Life Cycle Analysis can be used to analyse the environmental impacts of each stage of a product's life cycle from raw material extraction to final disposal.

A number of toiletries, for example from the Body Shop, and cleaning liquids are sold in refillable or returnable containers. Similarly, buying milk in returnable bottles avoids the creation of plastics waste.

Recycle: Many packaging materials can be collected for recycling, Examples include paper and glass and plastic bottles. It is best to purchase items for which you know that an infrastructure exists for recycling. Juice cartons have proved to be difficult to recycle although a plant now exists in Scotland for reprocessing this material.

You can send your cartons to the mill for recycling by downloading labels off the website or contacting the LFCMA office on 020 8977 6116.

Environmentally friendly packaging:Many claims are made to promote a particular product. Where possible buy packaging that has been recycled - eg recycled cardboard boxes. Some packaging is promoted as being biodegradable. Although when composted this is a good way to lessen environmental impact, it is important that these materials do not end up being landfilled as then the material cannot biodegrade and may in addition give off methane - a powerful greenhouse gas.

Packaging recycling symbols and logos  top of page

There are a number of symbols which commonly appear on packaging products. Some of these indicate the whether the item is recyclable, whilst others show the recycled material content.


Most beverage and food cans made from steel and aluminium can be recycled. Look out for the following symbols:

Recyclable aluminium - alu logo

Recyclable aluminium

Recyclable steel logo  

Recyclable steel



Mobius loop       or   Mobius loop with percentage sign


The above symbol, called the Mobius loop, is most commonly found on cardboard packaging and denotes that the item is recyclable. If the centre of the loop contains a number, this means that the item is made from a certain percentage of recycled materials.


RESY recycling symbol

Another symbol often displayed on paper and cardboard packaging is the RESY recycling symbol. This symbol guarantees that packaging with this symbol is recyclable and will be accepted by cardboard recyclers.



Glass bank symbol 

Whilst most glass containers are recyclable, this symbol reminds consumers to recycle glass jars and bottles, either at bottle banks or, where available, through kerbside collection schemes.


There are a wide range of plastics used in packaging. To make sorting and thus recycling easier, the American Society of Plastics Industry developed a standard marking code to help consumers identify and sort the main types of plastic. These types and their most common uses are shown below:


Recycling Logo


Polyethylene terephthalate - Fizzy drink bottles and oven-ready meal trays.

Recycling Logo


High-density polyethylene - Bottles for milk and washing-up liquids.

Recycling Logo


Polyvinyl chloride - Food trays, cling film, bottles for squash, mineral water and shampoo.


Recycling Logo


Low density polyethylene - Carrier bags and bin liners.

Recycling Logo


Polypropylene - Margarine tubs, microwaveable meal trays.

Recycling Logo


Polystyrene - Yoghurt pots, foam meat or fish trays, hamburger boxes and egg cartons, vending cups, plastic cutlery, protective packaging for electronic goods and toys.

Recycling Logo


Any other plastics that do not fall into any of the above categories. - An example is melamine, which is often used in plastic plates and cups.



Other symbols

Green Dot recycling logo

Another symbol often appearing on packaging is the German 'Green Dot'. This does not have any environmental significance, meaning only that the manufacturer has paid a fee towards the packaging recovery system in Germany.

European Eco label

The European Eco-label has been developed by the European Union to encourage the development of products which keep the impact on the environment to a minimum. It is a voluntary scheme and the 'flower' symbol is awarded to products that meet a set of stringent environmental and performance criteria. These criteria take into account all aspects of a product's life, from its production and use to its eventual disposal (cradle-to-grave approach). About 400 products - from washing machines to footwear - currently carry the label. Packaging is included in this life cycle analysis where it is integral to the product, such as washing up liquid or laundry detergents.

IBAW Compostable logo

If you see this symbol - it means you can put the packaging into your council's compost collection box or bag (if they provide one!)
This is a relatively new symbol found on biodegradable plastic packaging. The symbol signifies that the packaging has been tested, and is suitable for putting into local authority compost collections.

What does the law say?  top of page

The EC Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste 94/62/EC, the so-called Packaging Directive, aims to establish producer responsibility for packaging and packaging waste. The directive was implemented in the UK through the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 1997 and the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 1998. The former sets targets for the recovery and recycling of packaging wastes, whereas the latter specifies minimum design standards. For detailed information on these regulations and targets, see Waste Watch's Legislation information sheet. The Packaging regulations are also included within the waste strategies for the english government, and the devolved administrations' plans for the future of waste management. These can be found through our links page here.

Useful contacts  top of page

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
Nobel House
17 Smith Square
London SW1P 3JR
t 020 7238 6000  

Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)
DTI Enquiry Unit
1 Victoria Street
London SW1H OET
t 020 7215 5000

The Industry Council for Packaging & the Environment (INCPEN)
6-8 Market Place
t 0118 925 5991 f  0118 925 5993
Novelis Recycling (formerly ALCAN)

British Plastics Federation (BPF)
6 Bath Place
Rivington Street
London EC2A 3JE
t 020 7457 5000      

Alupro (Aluminium Packaging Recycling Organisation)
1 Brockhill Court
Brockhill Lane
Redditch, B97 6RB UK
t 01527 597757 f 01527 594140

British Glass
9 Churchill Way
Sheffield S35 2PY
t 0114 290 1850

Steel Can Recycling Information Bureau (SCRIB)
Port Talbot
South Wales
SA13 2NG
t 01639 872 626 f 01639 872 693

Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment
Churcham House
1 Bridgeman Road
Middlesex TW11 9AJ
t  020 8977 6116  f 020 8977 6909

Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI)
The Confederation of Paper Industries
1 Rivenhall Road
Westlea, Swindon
Wiltshire SN5 7BD
t 01793 889600 f 01793 886182



Updated: May - 06

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Due to changes in funding, we are no longer able to offer a telephone or email public information service. Should you have further questions on waste and recycling, please contact one of these groups:

Householders and students should call the Recycle Now helpline on 0845 331 31 31 for further waste based information, and where to find your local recycling facilities.

Small to medium businesses should visit the Envirowise website, or call 0800 585 794, for further information on waste issues. Larger businesses should visit

For industry based questions, please use the WRAP technical helpline on 0808 100 2040 for advice on markets and recycling company development, or visit for listings of recyclers and reprocessors.

If you find a mistake on this page, have a technical question regarding the wasteonline website, or would be interested in advertising your company logo on this information sheet please email

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