Image shows an aerial view of a rainforest with lakes in the shape of a recycling symbol

How food and drinks labels are fuelling waste

We speak to Ryan McGill, founder of Two Degrees Creative, about the problem with recycling symbols on food and drinks packaging – and how design can fix it

In the UK, over three-quarters of the population misunderstand what recycling and disposal symbols mean. It’s a staggering statistic, but it’s not difficult to see why people are perplexed. For instance, one well-known drink shows three icons relating to disposal on its can.

One is to indicate it’s recyclable aluminium (the letters ‘alu’ inside two interlocking circular arrows). Next to it is the Tidyman symbol – a stick figure dropping rubbish into a litterbin, which could be mistaken to mean ‘put this packaging in the regular bin’, when it’s actually just a symbol to encourage anti-littering. Finally, the can features the Green Dot – a symbol that to many people implies a piece of packaging is recyclable, rather than what it actually signifies in most European countries: that a company has made some form of financial contribution to recycling or waste recovery in Europe.

Far too much packaging features a similarly confusing combination of symbols, which tends to leave people overwhelmed, uninformed, and misguided as to what to actually do with a piece of packaging after it’s been used. It’s an issue that impacts all packaged goods, from toys to clothing to electronics, but is particularly rife in the food and drink sector, where packaging is often made of specific materials to ensure freshness or minimise leaking – materials that are either hard to recycle, or simply hard to know what to do with. Coupled with the fact that we interact with food and drinks more regularly than perhaps any other kind of packaged good, it’s easy to see how small symbols have a big impact.