Oct 11, 2021

Unknown friends of the Tidyman

A close look on the waste management and recycling communication on packaging.
Elisabeth Skoda

Uwe Melichar is an experienced packaging expert from Hamburg, Germany. President of the epda, European Brand & Packaging Design Association. In the first of a series of comment pieces, Uwe shares his global view on waste management- and recycling communication on packaging. Look out for future comment pieces, where he will introduce to epda member design agencies and their projects and lead a discussion on key packaging issues with experts in the field.

Do you know the Tidyman? It’s the nice guy who drops a sheet into a trash can. The symbol, which can be found on packages around the globe, dates back to the 1960s. “His message of responsible litter-disposal has been ingrained in many a child as they grow up, and serves as a reminder for adults too,” says Peter Jones, principal consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting. In former times. when the main goal was to reduce litter on the roadsides the tidyman played an important role. But today the world has become more complex. Apart from the gender question (tidywoman?) we have to question what material it is that he or she drops? Can it be recycled? And if the answer is yes, it leads us to a wide range of other relevant symbols.

Depending on the material, the country of manufacture, the waste management and recycling systems in the target market, dozens of pictograms tell the consumer what to do with the package at the end of its life. But do people understand the symbols, and do they act accordingly?

The research company Sense N Insight from Finland conducted a representative survey, asking 1000 customers if they are able to understand the different labels. The results were alarming. One third didn’t recognize plastic material labels, half of the people surveyed did not recognize carbon footprint labels and the majority wanted to gain more information on the environmental influences on packaging. Whilst the ‘Mobius Loop‘ is rather well-known, the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) that identifies wood based products from well managed forests, is completely unknown for the majority. When looking deeper into the survey we learn that many feel confused about bio-based, biodegradable and compostable packaging and its recycling. The ‘HOME OK compost’ logo means that it is suitable to be home composted, the Biodegradable logo only certifies that the product is ‘industrially compostable’ according to European standard EN 13432/14955. Understood?

The on-pack recycling label (or OPRL) system is promising. The symbols aims to help customers to dispose of different materials the right way. For example, there is one label that tells you to rinse the package and keep the lid on for the recycling process. But it still misses clarity. More than ten different labels instruct consumers to flatten the pack, to keep the cap on and that bottles are widely recycled but that the sleeve has to be removed as it can’t be recycled yet. Some plastic films can be recycled at supermarket's carrier bag collection points, but for others, consumers should check locally. That’s more than confusing although the idea of giving advice on what to do is good.

If you are a good citizen in France, the Triman sets an example and informs consumers about the need to deliver their empty packages to a separate collection for recycling at the end of its life cycle. He seems to be a close friend of the Tidyman but already knows better.

Not to forget another friend, the reasonably well-known Green Dot. The popular belief is that all products carrying this label are recyclable. Far from it. It only indicates that that the producer has financially contributed to the recovery and recycling of packaging in some way.

From a manufacturer’s or retailer’s point of view, things are also not easy. Forced to use specific labels in different countries it ends up in various versions (SKUs) for the same package. This effects logistics and means increased costs.

Coming back to our poor consumers - how can they find their way through jungle of symbols? And how can communication be improved? What we need is simplicity and international standards. Recycling systems and waste management differ in countries, but the range of materials is similar. Even if the collection of reusable materials varies, a basic set of coherent labels could do the job. Politicians are called upon to rectify the situation in close cooperation with brand owners, retailers, the manufacturing and the recycling industry. Designers can create a comprehensive visual language and the public has to be educated in an appropriate way. It is a difficult endeavour but for the sake of the planet we have to hurry!

In a future scenario, advanced technologies are able to screen materials automatically. Empty packages won’t be regarded as waste, but as valuable material resources only and most of them can be physically or chemically recycled. If this is going to happen on a broad scale, there is no need for different collection systems anymore. With micro payments people will be awarded for their material contribution and the only symbol is some new version of a Tidyman telling us not to litter. So there is hope!

Elisabeth Skoda

Editor of Touchpoints magazine, writer for Packaging Europe magazine and design enthusiast!
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