Consumers are more likely to buy goods with clearer recycling instructions as DS Smith reveals its 12 hardest-to-recycle items

ATLANTA–(BUSINESS WIRE)–If retailers want to attract and retain more environmentally conscious consumers in today’s demanding marketplace, their products should have clearer recycling instructions, according to a nationwide survey by the industry leader sustainable packaging from DS Smith.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents say they are more likely to buy these well-branded products, another sign of environmental concerns driving shopper preferences. Overall, 59% say disposal instructions for items are hard to find and 62% say there is a lot of conflicting advice on recycling.

The company also unveiled the “Dirty Dozen” – the top 12 items placed in mixed or paper recycling streams, but more difficult to recycle due to plastic and food contamination. Some of the most common culprits include junk mail, glittery wrapping paper, padded envelopes, sandwich wrappers, and microwaveable trays.

DS Smith regularly tests public opinion as part of its goal to create innovative and sustainable packaging solutions, design waste and support the reuse of materials to support the circular economy.

“We are committed to helping our customers be more circular and educating their customers as well, and that requires collaboration between businesses, municipalities and consumers,” said Toby Earnest, Head of Recycling at DS Smith in North America. “We all need to be aware of plastic and other non-recyclable items that can pose significant problems for paper mills, adding extra costs and waste in papermaking. There is also a significant environmental impact when large volumes of any of the “Dirty Dozen” end up in paper recycling streams.

The March 8-9 survey revealed a strong awareness among consumers of the important role they play – with 78% saying their recycling efforts help the environment and 72% having access to recycling at home or by street edge.

The poll indicated that while the majority of consumers are embracing recycling, many don’t know what items can be – and that means too much waste is being placed in mixed or paper recycling streams that shouldn’t be.

To help consumers, the company has identified the “Dirty Dozen,” the top 12 consumer items that trigger recycling:

Food trays: Cardboard trays used in the oven often contain a lamination that makes them difficult to break down during the papermaking process. They are also often contaminated with food, the recycling of which is not permitted.

Trays of fruit pulp: These trays often contain weak fibers of poor quality, which means that they are not strong enough to be made into other paper packaging products.

Food boxes: The plastic layer covering some cardboard boxes is difficult to break down and adheres to the cardboard, reducing its recyclability.

Potato Chip Tubes: Known as composite packaging, these tubes contain more than 50% non-paper materials that cannot be recycled at paper mills.

Glitter wrapping paper and greeting cards: Gift wrap and cards wrapped in plastic or containing glitter or metal can damage recycling machines.

Padded envelopes: The large volume of plastic in padded envelopes makes it difficult to separate cardboard and plastic items.

Sandwich wrappers: The plastic lamination on sandwich packaging (up to 20% of the packaging) makes it difficult to separate the cardboard and plastic elements. Food contamination also affects the quality of recyclable materials.

Insulated packaging for food delivery: Airtight fiber packaging takes longer to break down and contains plastic thermal layers that cause contamination problems in factories.

Bags and sachets of coffee: Metallic coatings on coffee bags can break into shimmering parts, contaminating the finished paper.

Wax and silicone papers: Like those in butter sticks, wax and silicone coatings make it difficult for paper machines to access recyclable fibers, and those that are recovered are often of poor quality.

Fast food soft drink cups: These can often be double laminated, making it even more difficult to break down and recover the recyclable fibers.

DS Smith is also working with the packaging supply chain to solve the problem of hard-to-recycle packaging products. Its research and development team is also exploring ways to replace packaging solutions and applications that contain hard-to-recycle plastics.

DS Smith’s innovative packaging products are designed using its proprietary circular design principles, which were developed in conjunction with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. All of DS Smith’s 700 designers have been trained in applying the principles to design packaging solutions suitable for the circular economy and help its customers achieve their sustainability and ESG goals.


The poll was conducted March 8-9 with 1,007 respondents, a total that typically has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. It was conducted using an online data collection methodology with research company Dynata.

About DS Smith

DS Smith is one of the world’s leading suppliers of sustainable fiber-based packaging, backed by recycling and papermaking operations. It plays a central role in the value chain across all sectors, including e-commerce, fast-moving consumer goods, and industries. With its focus on “redefining packaging for a changing world” and its now and then sustainability strategy, DS Smith is committed to leading the transition to the circular economy, while delivering more circular solutions to its customers and society at large, replacing problematic plastics, removing carbon from chains supply chain and offering innovative recycling solutions.

It’s tailor-made box to box in 14 days the model, design capabilities and innovation strategy are at the heart of this response. A strategic partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, North American operations are based in Atlanta, with 15 manufacturing, paper and recycling facilities, totaling more than 2,000 employees. DS Smith operates in 34 countries, employs approximately 30,000 people and is a strategic partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.