New Designs and Guidelines for Improved Recyclability of Polystyrene

by Nahla Davies on 09/24/2021 | 4 Minute Read

Some packaging substrates are worse than others. It's bad enough that consumers are drowning in a vast sea of plastic waste, but for the time being, brands are going to keep feeding us a steady diet of it. So, if you have a client that steadfastly insists on using something as pernicious as polystyrene, then this might be guide is for you.


Created to cover, recognize, preserve, and transport goods from where they get manufactured to the point of consumption, product packaging has a cross-sectional presence in almost all household, consumer, and industrial activities. 

And most of that packaging is made of plastic.

Today, only about 8% of plastic gets recycled, and this number must increase considerably if we are to protect our planet. With growing awareness of recycling advantages, there’s been mounting interest from businesses, resulting in a growth of 6.6% in the plastic recycling market. The trend is expected to continue to 2027 at least, and with more petrochemical plants coming online due to the fracking boom, it seems there’s no end in sight.

With that in mind, RecyClass (a company focused on helping business owners improve their recycled plastic packaging) devised guidelines to help design colored polystyrene (PS) containers. Each packaging component plays a critical role in ensuring its recyclability at the end of its consumption phase, and the guidelines provide coherent insight into how different elements must be compatible with reprocessing. 

Take note that polystyrene is known for being incredibly tough to recycle, so if you absolutely must use this material as per your client’s wishes, this guide should be super helpful to you. So, let’s take a closer look at these new guidelines and how businesses can rise to the occasion.

Polystyrene plastic packaging—the RecyClass way

The narrative of the recycling chain offers insight into the steps packaging undergoes when it gets discarded. Moreover, knowing the distinct stages of the chain—collecting, sorting, and recycling—offers packaging designers the opportunity to execute alternative processes. Using 100% recyclable plastics is a great way to meet your business’s sustainability goals, so let’s look at what RecyClass suggests.

Full compatibility 

This recommendation is for materials that:

  • have gone through the required testing protocols with no adverse impact 
  • haven’t been tested yet but are considered approved in PS-colored container recycling

When it comes to additives, antioxidants, stabilizers, nucleating agents, peroxides, and lubricants, they are almost always present during processing. However, it is imperative that during formulation, SBS copolymer has a density between 1 – 1.07 g/cm3.

The instructions regarding labels and sleeves state that it doesn’t obstruct the identification of the underlying PS-polymer. For PET bottles, it's advisable that water-resalable adhesives not cover over 40% of the container.

Limited Compatibility

The limited compatibility PS-specific guideline is for materials that:

  • have gone through testing protocols and meet particular criteria.
  • haven’t been tested yet, but pose a slight risk of meddling with PS recycling.

The labels should have print, barrier, or size that doesn’t hamper the underlying PS-polymer identification, and indication label sizes for containers are as follows:

  • 500 ml: < 70% coverage 
  • ? 500 ml: < 50% coverage

Low Compatibility

Low compatibility instruction for colored PS containers are materials that: 

  • fail the testing protocols 
  • haven’t been evaluated yet, but pose a significant risk of interference with PS recycling

For additives, the increasing density is more significant than 1,07 g/cm3 - Oxo, bio, and photodegradable additives. Additionally, some of the labels that hinder the identification of the PS, PETG, PET, PVC, PETG are paper with fiber loss, aluminum, and metalized materials Plus, the sleeves obstruct the identification of the PS container. These include metalized materials and heavily inked sleeves.

How can your company get on board?

For packaging and dropshipping businesses, one of the most important tips to remember is that finding your niche is crucial—and in this day and age, sustainability might be that niche. That’s why it could be wise to sell only sustainable products and use 100% recyclable packaging.

The following are some simple guidelines for designing recyclable packaging made with plastic:

  • Use the same material. Use mixed or mono-materials of the same type if possible. If you have to use different materials, make sure they are of different densities. And, of course, if possible, don’t use plastic at all in your packaging and look to substrates that can get utilized in an endless loop like glass or aluminum.
  • Minimize color. It’s preferable to use non-pigmented plastic. If color is essential, avoid using intense colors as much as you can.
  • Create easily separable closures. Closures should easily detach, shouldn’t leave attachments once they get removed, and should ideally be recyclable themselves.
  • Avoid full sleeves. The sleeve you use should be easily removable and have clear instructions explaining how to detach it.
  • Use small removable labels. Use adhesives sparingly when putting on labels. Also, said labels should not cover more than 60% of the surface area of the products and must be easy to remove. 

Make sure you highlight the sustainability of your products and packaging as part of your brand. You can even incorporate this and other assets and brand strengths into your logo design to set yourself apart from the competition.

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We need new ways for buyers to easily access the products they need while ensuring as little plastic waste as possible. That requires recyclable plastic packaging but also opting for materials that are better for the planet. 

The bottom line is manufacturers must design products with recyclability in mind. It's imperative that the plastics recycling industry facilitate consumer brands and companies to meet their sustainability goals while enhancing the recycling stream quality of plastics waste and boosting supply. 

As a final note, again, try to avoid plastics (and particularly PS) when possible. But if you must, make sure your packaging adheres to the guidelines set out by organizations like Recyclass. 

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