New Research: Plastic recycling labelling confusing and inconsistent

19 May 2020

Consumer movement and UNEP set out five global recommendations for action to tackle complexity of packaging information for consumers

Today Consumers International, UNEP and One Planet Network release their global assessment of recycling and sustainability labelling on plastic packaging

The research found only 19% of assessed labels give consumers quality information to make informed recycling and purchasing decisions. In response the report authors have created five global recommendations for action to engage business, policy makers, standard setters in creating better plastics labelling that make sustainability the easy choice for consumers.

Consumers are increasingly aware of the impact of plastic on the environment and want to reduce their use. However, the information provided to them to make more sustainable choices is not always clear or actionable, leading to reported confusion. There is a lack of standardisation and accountability with individual brands creating their own labels and claims without third party certification. Ensuring better labelling is an important way to support consumers to be a force for change.


A global approach is needed

Globally, only about 9% of plastic waste has been recycled and about 12% has been incinerated. The vast majority ends up in landfill or leaks into the environment. This is far away from the global vision for plastics to be 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable. Rising public awareness and concern about plastics has encouraged businesses to increasingly communicate this information about their packaging. However, the information is often unclear.

A global, multi-faceted, multi-stakeholder approach is the only way to tackle a crisis on this scale. Better plastics labelling is a simple and powerful way to help consumers to buy more recyclable and recycled products and to dispose of them correctly.

Five global recommendations for action

The next stage of the project is to move forward the report’s five global recommendations for action, working with key strategic partners:

  1. Businesses following the Guidelines for Providing Product Sustainability Information in their plastic packaging communications.
  2. Global consistency when it comes to definitions relating to the content and reusability of packaging or disposable items.
  3. The definitions and technical requirements used in standards related to recyclability, compostability, and biodegradability should better reflect real world conditions and be more attentive to accessibility and consumer understanding.
  4. The use of the ‘chasing arrows’ symbol should be restricted to indicating recyclability.
  5. Informative and verified recycling labels should be adopted and their proper use enforced.

Our view

“As the world rebuilds after COVID-19, we must focus on rebuilding our economy but doing it in a way that meets the Sustainable Development Goals. We have a unique opportunity to change and rebuild systems to work for people, business and the planet. To accelerate sustainable solutions to the world’s biggest challenges we need to bring together dedicated, innovative and ambitious people across all areas of the plastics infrastructure to provide the solutions to tackle this global crisis.

“Consumers are increasingly aware of the impact of plastics on the environment, however information provided on plastics is not always clear and actionable. The five global recommendations for action will support businesses, policy and standard makers to enable consumers to make sustainable choices.”

Helena Leurent, Director General, Consumers International

The research also found a confusing use of the chasing arrows symbol associated with recycling. There is no standard practice for its use and brands can use the symbol for any meaning.

An example of this is the Green Dot label. The design of this label is reminiscent of the universal recycling symbol, but does not indicate recyclable, instead it is means the brand has paid into a scheme which recovers, sorts and recycles sales packaging in the EU. A valid and useful scheme but the symbol is confusing for consumers who could mistake it for recycling information.

During the expert consultation, labels that inform about compostability and biodegradability emerged as the most problematic. While research suggests consumers prefer packaging that is compostable or biodegradable, access to industrial composting facilities is very limited and consumers are confused about how to dispose of these items. Therefore, these materials are often contaminating garden waste streams and recycling streams, simply going into household waste or in the worst case, littered into the environment.

What next? 

Following the publication of this report, the One Planet network Consumer Information Programme will develop a set of key messages to share with businesses, governments and standard-setters showing what they can do to improve the landscape of consumer information on plastic packaging to reduce confusion.

All outputs of the Consumer Information Programmes’s plastics work will contribute to the One Planet network-wide Plastics Initiative and its guidance document that will be released in the final quarter of 2020, and presented at the United Nations Environment Assembly in February 2021.

See below for ways that you can support the promotion of this report and contribute to the next stage of this programme of work:

  • Share the findings of this report with your networks 
  • Read more about our work on Sustainable Consumption
  • Sign up to our eNewsletter for regular updates on how consumer advocacy taking action
  • Contact us to find how you can be involved in the next stage of our plastic work