Recycling symbols on coffee packaging explained

Jane Merchant
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June 15, 2021
recycling symbols

From plastic resin codes to the Mobius loop, recycling symbols are a small but crucial inclusion on coffee packaging. They tell consumers what they should do with their empty pouches to ensure they’re disposed of correctly, while also showcasing a roaster’s commitment to sustainability.

However, with so many symbols now in use, it can be difficult for consumers to discern between them. According to a recent study, almost 50% of consumers said they found the array of different logos confusing and that this confusion had led them to recycle items that couldn’t be recycled. Meanwhile, only 37% of people could correctly identify what the Mobius loop meant, a symbol that has been in use in the UK for more than 50 years. 

Despite this, consumers have repeatedly shown they are more concerned about the impact of their buying habits on the environment than ever before. As such, it is vital for specialty roasters to make sure they provide their customers with as much information about the recyclability of their coffee packaging as possible.

Read on to find out about recycling symbols and how they can be used on coffee packaging.

Read next: Does recyclable packaging affect the characteristics of coffee?

A brief history of recycling symbols 

People have recycled materials for centuries – but the concept of recycling symbols is relatively new. The universal recycling symbol (a Mobius loop made up of three triangles) was designed in 1970 by 23-year-old college student Gary Anderson. His symbol was the winning entry in a competition sponsored by Container Corporation of America (CCA), a large Chicago-based producer of recycled paperboard at the time.

Following his win, Anderson claimed that he designed the Mobius loop to “symbolise continuity within a finite entity” and “suggest both the dynamic (things are changing) and the static (an equilibrium, a permanent state)”. With its three arrows, It has also been linked to the three Rs: recycle, reuse, and reduce. 

The symbol quickly became public domain and spawned a number of variations. One of the most well recognised is the plastic resin code, which features a number inside the Mobius loop to denote a specific type of plastic. This variation was devised by the Society of Plastics Institute (SPI) in 1988 to facilitate the sorting of plastics.

The American Paper Institute originally promoted two variants of the recycling symbol. The plain Mobius loop (either solid black or white with an outline) was used to indicate that a product was recyclable. The Mobius loop inside a circle (either white on black or black on white) was meant for products made of recycled materials.

What are the most common recycling symbols on coffee packaging?

As the recycling symbol variations expand and change, it can be confusing to keep up with the meaning of each one. This is a problem when it comes to recycling rates, which have fallen across a number of developed countries. For example, between 2017 and 2018, the recycling rate in the UK fell from 45.5% to 45% for household waste.

To improve recycling rates, it’s crucial that consumers understand what to do with their coffee packaging once it’s empty. A big part of this is knowing what each recycling symbol means. Here are some of the most common recycling symbols found on coffee packaging.

Mobius loop

The Mobius loop is the universal recycling symbol. If packaging has been stamped with this symbol, then it means the packaging itself has the potential to be recycled. However, it does not mean that it has been made from recycled materials. When the loop is seen with a number and a percentage symbol, it indicates that the packaging contains a certain percentage of recycled material.

Plastic resin codes

Plastic resin codes (or Resin Identification Codes) are used to indicate which type of plastic resin was used to make the packaging. The resin is usually defined between 1-7, and the relevant number will appear in the centre of the arrows on the label. In the UK, the numbers correspond to the following: PET/PETE (1), HDPE (2), PVC (3), LDPE (4), PP (5), PS (6), and miscellaneous, including PLA (7).

The Green Dot

The Green Dot is a symbol used on packaging in a number of European countries indicating that a financial contribution has been paid to a qualified national packaging recovery organisation. It does not mean the packaging is recyclable, will be recycled, or has been recycled. Unlike the Mobius loop, it is a trademark protected worldwide, which means it cannot be displayed on packaging without the necessary licences. 

Widely recycled

The widely recycled label is used on packaging in the UK to indicate that it’s collected by 75% or more of local authorities. When the label has the word “Rinse” above the arrow, it means the packaging must be washed to ensure that food residue doesn’t contaminate other materials.

Check locally

“Check locally” means that 20%-75% of people have access to recycling facilities for these items.

What can specialty coffee roasters do to promote recycling?

While the onus ultimately falls on consumers, specialty roasters also need to do their part to ensure their packaging is recycled as it should be. Multilayer packaging can be particularly confusing as each layer often needs to be separated before it can be recycled, a process that relies on specialised facilities.

One option to encourage the recycling of coffee packaging is to offer a collection scheme. Modern Standard Coffee is one such company that offers this service. They work with US recycling company TerraCycle who collect used coffee bags for extrusion and pelletisation, before moulding them into various recycled plastic products. Modern Standard Coffee will then reimburse the cost of postage to their customers as well as offering a discount on their next orders.

Alternatively, roasters can alert customers to dedicated recycling centres or collection services in the area. This can be done by either including the information somewhere on the packaging or by adding scannable QR codes.

As specialty roasters increasingly turn to recyclable packaging, it’s become more important than ever for consumers to understand how to properly dispose of their empty coffee bags. Roasters can do their part by learning what each symbol means and communicating this as clearly as possible. 

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of recyclable packaging options, including polylactic acid (PLA), which is shown by a number seven inside a Mobius loop, and low-density polyethylene (LDPE), which is shown by a number four. Our BPA-free degassing valves and resealable zippers are also recyclable, allowing you to create a fully recyclable product for your customers.

For information about our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team

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