Types of Packaging and How to Recycle Them

Know Your Packaging: Recycling Tips for Every Type


We use packaging to protect products and advertise the brands that make them. People interact with packaging every day, and it’s something most of us take for granted. For hundreds of years, humans have casually discarded wrappers, boxes, and bags to get at the exciting goodies inside. Today, however, the way we treat used packaging is changing, and recycling is the future.


Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Packaging


Primary packaging comes into direct contact with the product. Examples of primary packaging include cooldrink bottles, soup cans, egg cartons, toothpaste tubes, frozen vegetable bags, fresh meat trays and tablet blister packs. Primary packaging is the most common household waste item.


Secondary packaging, contains & protects the primary packaging and never comes into contact with the actual products inside. For example, the carton-board box that holds the toothpaste tube or the the clear film around the multipack of coke cans sold in 6’s. This packaging is usually discarded before using the product in the primary packaging.


Tertiary packaging is the transport packaging, as it is final packaging layer that secures all other packaged items together for distribution and storage. For example, the clear plastic wrapped around a full pallet of packed product that prevents it from shifting and/or falling and damaging during transit. Other examples include heavy duty corrugate boxes, the wooden or plastic pallet its-self, strapping to further secure the pallet load and protective packaging such as pallet corner suppliers, top covers, packing peanuts, polystyrene padding and bubble wrap, and wooden pallets.


5 Most Common Packaging Materials and How To Recycle Them


1.Paper-Based Packaging


Paper is one of the most basic and cost-effective packaging materials out there. It’s the perfect barrier between dry goods and the outside world. The paper-based packaging stream includes formats such as carton-board and corrugated boxes, paper bags, corrugated sheeting, compressed board, pallet corners, tags and self-adhesive labels, and paper void fills used for protection of products from damage during transit. Some types of paper-based packaging are coated with plastic to provide a moisture barrier, such as in a carton-board box packaging frozen fish or chicken portions.


To recycle paper-based packaging, it is important that it is keep as clean and dry as possible and is separated out from any other types of packaging materials. The clear bag of paper-based waste you accumulate, can be placed onto your outside pavement on bin day for recyclers to collect on their round of the area.


2.Plastic-Based Packaging


For the last 50 years, plastic has been king in the packaging world. It’s lightweight, cost-effective, waterproof, can provide barrier to oxygen and other gasses and is strong. For this reason, it has become the most popular packaging material worldwide. There are seven different types of plastic (including polystyrene), each with unique properties & recycling requirements. There should be a triangle with a number inside it on each piece of plastics packaging which confirms what type of plastic the packaging is made of.


You can contact a recycling centre near you to find out which types of plastic packaging they take and where to drop them off – see the handy map at the bottom of eWASA’s homepage. Alternatively, you can always leave PET bottles, HDPE (strong white plastic bottles), and flexible plastic bags outside on bin day in an orange bag, for your local recyclers to collect. Remember to rinse all plastic packaging before recycling it.


3.Glass Packaging


Glass is 100% recyclable! Never throw away beer bottles, jam jars, sauce containers, medicine bottles, coffee containers, and anything around the house that’s made from glass. Instead, collect it in a separate bin and take it to a glass bank near you. There are thousands of glass banks around the country, and they make recycling convenient and fun. Get the whole family involved – kids will love dropping the glass into the bank and hearing it crash!


4.Metal Packaging


The most common types of metal packaging materials are steel, aluminium, and tinplate. Tinned foods like pilchards, tuna, corned beef, tomato paste, hot chocolate, baby forumla and some types of fruits are packaged in 3-piece, steel cans with a thin internal coating of tinplate to prevent product spoilage. Products like baked beans, corn, ready-meals, cooldrink cans and beer cans are packaged in 2-piece, aluminium cans, also with a specialised internal coating to enhance the shelf-life of the product. All metal packaging is infinitely recyclable, and you can add it to your paper-based packaging in the clear bags for collection by recyclers on bin day.


5.Compostable or Biodegradable Packaging


Some packaging is made from materials that naturally break down in the environment, such as untreated wood, acid-free paper, cardboard, jute, and cotton. These are called home compostable or home bio-degradable packaging and if you were to leave these materials outside in the sunshine & rain, they would eventually rot and release non-harmful nutrients back into nature. However, doing this causes litter, and it’s better to dispose of them in a home compost heap instead. Be sure to check on the packaging though, as home compostable/biodegradable is NOT THE SAME AS industrial compostable or biodegradable. NEVER PUT PACKAGING MARKED WITH THE TERM ‘BIOPLASTICS’ OR ‘INDUSTRIAL COMPOSTABLE’ OR INDUSTRIAL BIODEGRADABLE’ onto your compost heap. These packaging materials will only be composted or bio-degraded under specific conditions only achieve in an industrial composting or industrial bio-degradable factory and there are only a handful of these across South Africa.


What About Packaging Made From Mixed Materials?


Mixed materials refer to packaging that is either made of different components each composed of a different packaging material, or of different materials combined into one packaging layer called a multi-material, multilayer or a laminate material.


Sometimes, manufacturers use different packaging materials for different components that make up the packaging. This is because each material type has unique properties that benefit the product. For example, a fancy face cream might come in a glass container with a plastic inner lining and metal lid. This type of packaging is typically more difficult to recycle. Some shops and brands have take-back schemes to give their customers recycling solutions, such as the Vuse “Drop the Pod” programme.


Manufacturers also use laminate material for their packaging as the product being packaged may need different things to stay fresh and not get damaged, and the different materials that make up the layers of the laminate material offer these separately. For example, Vacuum packaging around cheese is made of, what looks like, one clear layer of packaging, plus a label. However, this clear layer is actually made of more than one layer of different types of plastic material that are fused together to form the clear laminate layer that provides high gass-barrier, for product freshness and a very strong sealing ability. 

Other products such as red meat or food products that do not need to be refrigerated, need even more functionality from the packaging in order to stay safe and fresh, so the packaging needs many more layers of different material types, each offering its own unique properties for the benefit of the product inside the packaging. (i.e. clarity, print quality, strength for puncture resistance)


Another example of a multi-material, multilayer packaging, is liquid carton-board packaging. For example, Orange Juice Cartons and Long Life Milk cartons. This packaging is made of different material types, all fused together in order for the packaging to work. (i.e. plastic inner layer for sealing, aluminium or plastic middle layer for a gas barrier, paper layer for rigidity and the brand printing surface and an outer plastic layer to protect the printing so that it does not scuff. These cartons are recycled in South Africa, so PLEASE LOOK OUT for the Mpact collection bins to dispose of this type of packaging responsibly, or place them in with your paper-based and metal packaging in the clear bags for collection on bin day.


A Note on Single-Use Packaging


Some small single-use packaging items like plastic knives and forks, straws, serviettes, and toothpick wrappers can be challenging to recycle. They are often just not worth recycling and end up going to landfill. The best way to combat this is to avoid buying single-use products at all. Instead, stock up on reusable fruit and veggie bags, travel cutlery, beeswax wrap, washable baby wipes, etc.


Bread tags are some of the only single-use packaging items that are widely recycled in South Africa. You can collect these at home and drop them off at a bread tag collection point near you.


Start Recycling Packaging Today


Since 2021, South African businesses have been required by law to collect, recover, and recycle the packaging waste their product creates. These legal regulations are also known as EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility.) Learn more about packaging recycling laws in South Africa or get in touch with us to find recyclers near you.

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