Your Mpact Recycling Reference Guide to Packaging Labels

As the problem of waste management becomes increasingly acute in South Africa and around the world, recycling has never been more critical. With growing awareness, many more of us are making greater efforts. To be as effective as possible, these efforts should begin not when we’ve finished with a product or its packaging, but when we first buy it.

By checking the labels on the packaging, we can make informed buying choices based on how recyclable an item is. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? However, there’s more to it. Does the item contain a sufficient amount of recyclable material? Can it be put into a recycling bin? And should it be separated and washed?

These and other questions can be answered by understanding the labels. Such understanding enables more efficient recycling and, therefore, greater benefit to our environment.

We’ve put together this label crib sheet to make life easier for you.

A Definition of Recyclable According to Mpact

The most important question we need to ask when picking up a product is: can it be recycled? Mpact aligns with the South African National Standards (SANS) definition of ‘recyclable’. SANS is also aligned with the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) in its guidelines for the environmental labelling of products. According to these standards, ‘recyclable’ means that the material can be collected, separated, processed, and converted into new materials or products. This is based on three key criteria:

  1. The material must be physically and chemically suitable for recycling.
  2. Recycling the material must be economically viable.
  3. There must be a market for the recycled material.

Notes: It’s worth mentioning that this definition, while comprehensive, may differ from others used in the industry, such as the On-Pack Recycling Labels (OPRLs) discussed later in this article.

On-Pack Recycling Labels

On-pack recycling labels (OPRLs) indicate whether the packaging is recyclable or not, and whether the packaging has been made from recycled material. The guidelines for on-pack labels have been agreed upon by major South African retailers and Producer Responsibility Organisations, with the World Wildlife Fund facilitating the process.

Material source

This is a voluntary element that appears in a rectangle alongside the name of the part of the packaging to which it refers. For instance, plastic packaging may state, ‘Made from a minimum of 35% recycled plastic’ or ‘Made from 100% recycled plastic’. In the case of paper or card products, the label may feature an FCS logo (Forest Stewardship Council), signifying that the part referred to is certified as recyclable. The ‘source’ varies according to the product but may refer to the tray, sleeve, film, or pad, for example.

Recyclability Symbol

This is the widely recognised recyclability symbol indicating that the component part of the packaging is recyclable.

Disposal Label

Labels may say ‘Paper Recycle’ or ‘Plastic Recycle’, with some labels alternatively stating, ‘Widely Recycled’. A black-and-white version of the recyclability icon with a line through it will be accompanied by the title ‘Not Recycled’ or ‘Not Recycled Currently’.

Special Instructions

This section of the label contains important instructions that can assist with recyclability. For example, they will inform you to remove a cap before recycling or to thoroughly rinse the packaging.

The Meaning of the Recyclable Symbol in OPRLs

When looking at product packaging, you may come across the ‘Recyclable at Scale’ symbol. In the context of On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRLs), this means that at least 30% of the product or packaging is currently being recycled.

Note: This definition is a generally accepted industry standard and is often used by retailers and producers in South Africa. However, it is distinct from the definition of ‘recyclable’ used by Mpact, which follows SANS and ISO guidelines.

Global Recycling Symbols

Möbius Loop

Origin: Worldwide
This symbol indicates that a product is recyclable, but it doesn't always mean it will be accepted in all recycling facilities.

Green Dot

Origin: Europe
This symbol means that the producer of the packaging has contributed to the cost of recovery and recycling.

Forest Stewardship Council®️ (FSC)

Origin: Worldwide
This symbol certifies that wood-based products are sourced from responsibly managed forests.

Compostable/Seedling Symbol

Origin: Europe, North America
This symbol indicates that the product is industrially compostable.

Material Identification Codes

These are primarily for use by recyclers and waste collectors for sorting purposes. The number corresponds to the type of material used in the product or packaging. While consumers often see this symbol, they frequently mistake it for indicating that the package is recyclable, which is not always the case.

Resin Identification Codes for Plastics

Commonly known as resin identification codes, these labels specify the type of plastic polymer used in products and packaging. Here's how they break down:

1 = PETE or PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)*: Used mainly in soft drink bottles and food containers.
2 = PEHD or HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)*: Found in plastic bags, bottle caps, and various foams.
3 = PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride): Mostly used for window frames, pipes, and flooring, rather than packaging.
4 = PELD or LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)*: Used in Ziploc bags, buckets, and chopping boards.
5 = PP (Polypropylene)*: Common in car bumpers, DVD cases, and Correx®.
6 = PS (Polystyrene): Known for its use in Styrofoam.
7 = OTHER (All Other Plastics): Includes a variety of plastics like Polycarbonate, polyamide, and bioplastics.

Recycling Codes for Paper Products

20 = PAP (Corrugated Fiberboard)*: Widely used for boxes in various sectors.
21 = PAP (Non-Corrugated Fiberboard)*: Used mainly in food packaging like cereal boxes.
22 = PAP (Paper)*: Used in books, newspapers, and various types of paper-based packaging.

Codes for Metal Packaging

40 = FE (Steel)*: Predominantly used for food cans.
41 = ALU (Aluminium)*: Used in soft drink cans, aluminium foil, and single-use food containers.

Biomatter Recycling Codes

50 = FOR (Wood): Common in packaging crates and furniture.
51 = FOR (Cork): Mainly used as bottle stoppers for wine.
60 = COT (Cotton): Used occasionally in packaging.
61 = TEX (Jute): Commonly used for bags.

Glass Recycling Codes

70 = GL (Clear Glass)*: Popular for food storage jars and bottles.
71 = GL (Green Glass)*: Typically used for alcoholic beverages.
72 = GL (Brown Glass)*: Used for packaging light-sensitive food or drinks.

Composite Material Recycling Codes

80 (Paper and Miscellaneous Metals): A mix of paper and various metals.
81 = PapPet (Paper and Plastic): Used in pet food bags and ice cream tubs.
82 (Paper and Fibreboard/Aluminium): Common in snack tubes.

Battery Recycling Codes

While not directly related to packaging, it's worth mentioning the codes used for batteries:

8 = Lead (Lead–acid battery)
9 = Alkaline (Alkaline battery)
10 = NiCD (Nickel–cadmium battery)
11 = NiMH (Nickel–metal hydride battery)
12 = Li (Lithium battery)
13 = SO(Z) (Silver-oxide battery)
14 = CZ (Zinc–carbon battery)

Disclaimer: Items marked with an asterisk (*) are materials generally accepted by Mpact Recycling. However, we strongly encourage you to contact the specific branch directly to confirm what materials they are currently accepting and to ask about pricing. Contact details for each branch can be found on our website:

Greenwashing with Misleading Labels

Greenwashing occurs when brands market themselves on a sustainability platform in an attempt to attract environmentally conscious customers without being fully transparent about the environmental impact of their operations or products. Sometimes their labelling may be legal but not sufficiently informative. You can read more about this here.

Last year, Statistics South Africa reported that South Africans generated over 122 million tonnes of waste. Only 10% of that was recycled.

We can all read the warning signs. We all need to read the labels.

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