Provenance's guide to understanding 'Recyclable'

Published on
November 13, 2019

With so many brands now claiming that their products are ‘ethical’ – how can you figure out what really is? Provenance’s Proof Points ensure brands define and prove these terms in the same way. It is a framework to help you make sense and trust what a brand says about its business or products.

What should I know about 'Recyclable'?

Recycling is hard. It’s easy to be confused. Different countries, jurisdictions, councils, and boroughs have varying rules and vastly different infrastructure. Packaging is still often times mis-labelled or not labeled at all. New packaging is hitting the shelves every day. Corn starch straws, beet sugar plastics, compostable glasses… Are they recyclable, biodegradable, home compostable, industrially compostable? Most of the time different rules apply to different components - which is often not made explicit and means it’s hard to trust recycling claims. It’s time for clearer transparency in the industry.

Aside from helping you identify what components of the packaging are recyclable directly at the point of sale, Provenance is also launching a tool in partnership with Valpak to offer better recyclability assessments which take into account the current local recycling infrastructure and goes beyond a simple theoretical exercise. This is crucial as calling something ‘recyclable’ does not guarantee that it will actually be recycled where you live. It’s important to double-check with your local government. 

Ultimately, better recyclability claims are not the be-all and end-all. Improvements in infrastructure and change in consumption behaviour are both needed to prioritise reduce and re-use before we indeed look to recycle.

Not to be confused with...

Biodegradable: The idea behind biodegradable items is that they will eventually break down by natural processes and do not need to be in a specific environment (e.g. industrial facility) to do so. Since there is no standard regulation on how long this process should take, it allows for most items to be considered biodegradable rendering the majority of these claims meaningless. Additionally, many items claiming to be biodegradable – especially plastics, can cause more harm than good in certain instances (e.g. ocean debris). In terms of recyclability, most biodegradable items are not recyclable unless repurposed before the breakdown process.

Compostable: Often used interchangeably, compostable and biodegradable are actually two separate things – both of which differ from recyclable. Compostable goes one step further than biodegradable and requires the materials to break down into non-toxic components such as water or carbon dioxide. While some items are compostable at home (e.g coffee grounds, eggshells, wood chips), the majority of consumer products do not naturally decompose at home in the required 6 to 12-week timeframe. Industrial composition is the ideal alternative to solve this problem by artificially creating the optimal settings (e.g. temperature, humidity and oxygen) needed for decomposition. However, few places have the right facilities and reaching these conditions can often be energy-intensive.

Recycled Material: This refers to what was used to make the packaging. Packaging made from recycled materials, sometimes referred to as ‘upcycled’, should hopefully mean it’s more likely to be recyclable but this isn’t always the case. Because different materials have varying amounts of ‘lives’, it can affect post-consumer recycling. Recycled content made from aluminium, metals, and glass is not an issue since all three have almost infinite ‘lives’ and can be recycled many times over. However, plastic is a different story and can only be repurposed a limited amount of times.

Compostable, biodegradable, and recyclable are not mutually exclusive claims. Something that is compostable can still be considered biodegradable and also recyclable if the end material is then repurposed. On the other hand, most recyclable items can probably be considered biodegradable but not compostable.

How does Provenance define 'Recyclable'?

At least X% of the product or packaging can be diverted from the waste stream through available processes and programmes and can be collected, processed and returned to use in the form of raw materials and products*.

We further categorise recyclable into 2 different levels to help you differentiate better:

  1. 100% of this product can be broken down into its raw materials and repurposed so it can be used again.
  2. At least 75% of this product can be broken down into its raw materials and repurposed so it can be used again.

Our guidance to brands follows ISO Standard 14021. This assumes that collection or drop-off facilities are reasonably accessible to the majority of shoppers and follows a strict methodology on how recyclability is calculated.

What does the Proof Point look like?

When a brand makes a Provenance-powered claim about recyclability online, you will see one of the following:

Why should I trust it?

Proof Points are designed to be interactive. When you click on a ‘Recyclable' Proof Point you should see an expanded card with supporting information and links:

Types of supporting evidence

Every Proof Point also contains links to evidence, so that brands have to prove what they say with real documentation. For ‘Vegan’ this is the type of evidence and verification you can expect to see:

  • A certification
  • Strength of this evidence: STRONG
  • Verifiers: Circpack (Suez). SCS Global Services,
  • A recyclability assessment/report from a third party
  • Strength of this evidence: MEDIUM
  • Verifiers: PREP Software (AUS & accessible via OPRL in UK), Independent Packaging Consultant
  • A signed statement of assurance
  • Strength of this evidence: MINIMUM REQUIRED
  • Requirements: This is a signed statement of assurance from management team member on the % recycled per component

What does verified mean?

A verified proof point means an independent 3rd party has confirmed the accuracy of the brand’s statement. This is the verifier.

Provenance has our own list of approved verifiers. Third parties include (but are not limited to):

  • Accredited auditors
  • Accountants or lawyers
  • Laboratories
  • Data providers
  • Sustainability consultancies
  • Assurance providers
  • NGOs and Charities
  • Governmental bodies
  • Supranational organisations

This Proof Point is just one example from our entire framework. As we grow the framework we will publish a full list so you can learn about the key claims businesses are making about themselves and their products.

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