ASTRX: Applying Systems Thinking to Recycling

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition and the Recycling Partnership have started a new initiative that will build a roadmap for a stronger American recycling industry.

We believe strengthening the recycling system will provide U.S. manufacturers with a steady supply of raw materials, bring more jobs to the U.S., and reduce our impact on the environment. ASTRX is a systems-level project to increase recycling by strengthening each element of the materials supply chain to create reliable and valuable manufacturing feedstock.

For packaging to be recycled successfully, we must consider how it flows through each of the five elements of recycling: end markets, reprocessing, sortation, collection, and consumer engagement. To increase recovery, ASTRX will examine each element of the recycling system, identify barriers to recovering more high quality materials, and develop solutions that support each element and thus help the recycling system as a whole.

Five Elements of ASTRX

  • End Markets
  • Reprocessing
  • Sortation
  • Collection
  • Consumer Engagement
End Markets
Consumer Engagement

Manufacturers turn processed recyclable materials back into a product for sale.

Taking bales of recovered recyclables and processing it to a form that can be used as manufacturing feedstock, such as aluminum sheet, plastic flake or paper pulp or sheet.

Once at the MRF (Materials Recovery Facility), recyclables must pass through an array of machinery designed to separate materials into individual bales for sale to reprocessers.

Via local governments or private haulers, recyclables must make it from the curb or drop-off facility to the MRF (Materials Recovery Facility) or transfer station.


In this stage of the system, local governments, brands and other stakeholders help consumers understand what to recycle and how to do it properly.



  • Navigating the Recycling System

    Think of these questions as a starting point for a conversation about the recyclability of a product. Start by considering the ultimate goal: that a recycled product finds an end market.

  • Navigating The Recycling System 2.0

    This companion worksheet is printable and offers spaces for additional notes about the package.

  • Example of a Package that Fares Well in the Recycling System
  • Example of a Package that Fares Poorly in the Recycling System

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking means analyzing how parts and patterns within a larger system interact and influence one another. There are many ways to define a system, and even more ways to approach thinking about them. The end goal of systems thinking is to gain new insights about how the system works and why, where its problems are, and how changes can be implemented to make the system more effective and efficient.

Because of the intricacies of the American recycling system and the relationships among the five elements, the recycling system is ripe for analysis from a systems thinking perspective.

Core and Fringe

One way ASTRX will break down the complexities of the recycling system is to categorize packaging into groups to help customize solutions. We will start by assessing commodities that are core to the recycling system and those on the fringes. For example, some materials move through the recycling system smoothly. These core materials are well suited to quality recycling today. What can we do to increase the value and reduce the contamination of these core materials?

Fringe materials are those that face a more challenging path to being recycled. Consumers may not yet realize that they are recyclable, they may not sort easily at a MRF, or there may not be enough of them to sell to reprocessors in high quantities. The solutions for successfully recycling fringe materials will differ from those for core materials.

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