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Recycling + packaging design

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

When it comes to ensuring our planet survives our very large and invasive footprint, there are two key issues we need to fix. One is our carbon footprint and the other is our waste.

If we focus on waste we can see why there is a strong lobby towards eliminating plastic, yet if we were to do so, we risk dangerously elevating our carbon emissions.

What we need is a fine balance that involves a paradigm shift in recycling and a drastic reduction in our dependance on virgin resources.

There is a systemic link between better plastic design, reuse, improved recycling economics, and increased collection incentives. To achieve this starts with recognising that our current recycling efforts fall drastically short.

Even if current UK government and industry commitments are fully implemented, it has been estimated that plastic flows into the ocean in 2040 would be only 7% lower than they currently are. Meanwhile, hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested in new virgin plastic production plants and global plastic production is expected to increase by 40% over the next decade.

In other words, current commitments are inadequate for the scale of the challenge.

So let’s look at packaging, one of the main culprits for all this waste. Most of it has been designed with the primary purpose to engage with the consumer, protect the contents and tell a strong brand story.

What recyclable features it may include are not always by design and they are certainly not clearly thought through.

The uncomfortable truth is that despite most brand owner’s sustainability claims the battle between cost/marketing and environmental features negatively impact the actual design for optimum recycling.

The consequences of continuing down our current recycling routes are terrifying.

Even as the world starts to grasp the enormity of the challenge, the likes of ocean plastic pollution is growing at an alarming rate.

It has been estimated that by 2040 29 million metric tons of plastic per year will be entering the oceans from land. That is equivalent to 50 kg of plastic per meter of coastline worldwide. Because plastic remains in the ocean for hundreds of years and may never biodegrade, the cumulative amount of plastic stock in the ocean could grow by 450 million metric tons in the next 20 years.

We can reverse this by making transformational shifts to get on top of the situation. Whilst brand owners may be risk averse, the risk to our planet far outweighs the risk of trying something different.

And, in fact, with careful thought, re-designing a pack or bottle to be as recyclable as possible should improve its quality and reduce its cost.

Let’s explore this.

Take a cap

Over the last 30 years more than 20 million bottle caps and lids were found during beach cleaning activities around the world. These caps are among the five main ocean trash items that are deadly to sea life.

A few small changes would flip this situation around.

Keep it on

Start by tethering caps to the bottle. This would boost the volume of caps being recycled and provide more material for recycling back into caps. 

Current commercial designs for tethering caps to bottles are increasingly being light-weighted and would be a minor cost to the drinks companies but a huge benefit to the environment.

Pick a polymer

Most PET bottle caps are made of either HDPE or Polypropylene depending on the brand-owners choice. Separating them into their relevant polymer types is a nightmare and as a consequence they end up in low value applications as a mixture or in landfill due to their size and detachment from the bottle .

Let’s adopt one polymer type per country to simplify the separation problem.

Shed the pigments

If all caps were either natural or white we would actually capture, recycle and re-use all caps ad-infinitum. Instead we are literally drowning in a sea of multi-coloured caps.

Let’s opt for a cleaner planet over a colour-coded cap by which to recognise our favourite beverage.

All label no glue

We need to ditch the pressure sensitive adhesive labels that contaminate the recycling streams and opt for stretch labels or shrink sleeves.  The aggressive glues are particularly an issue for recyclers of PET and HDPE packaging and some options like self-peeling labels are already on the market.

Evian recently made a bold sustainability statement with their label free water bottle. Their ‘naked’ bottle showcases authentic recycling at the heart of its design. One day the cap might become transparent and be tethered to the bottle for clean sweep in the quest for circularity.

Shrink sleeve revival

Today’s shrink sleeves have made a paradigm shift and now promise to deliver all the initial design benefits brand managers enjoyed when they first started using them with total recyclability bolted on. These offer a perfect alternative for those brands who still favour coloured plastic in their packaging.

Seeing through colours

The rainbow of colours brands are currently deploying only goes to show how little deep recycling features in the design remit.   

Coloured plastic packaging is much harder to recycle economically than clear plastic since there is little demand for the resulting “recycling grey” that we get when we mix all these colours. Unscrambling the colours is possible via sorting equipment but the multitude of colour variants means that it is impossible to produce a colour that would suit any one brand-owner .

The ironical fact is that in many cases the coloured plastic is often covered by a large label as a means of marketing making the package below invisible. It might as well be grey or natural and save the pigment costs and improve the final recyclability!

There is no doubt that colour is one of packaging designers’ key tools yet the impact on a pack’s recyclability is huge. Tomorrow’s ideal bottle would be either transparent, white or self-coloured grey and shrink sleeves would be used to ensure the brand is loud and clear.

Back to source

There is little point in transforming the design details without going back to the source of the actual material used in the container. Take an HDPE milk bottle. Many resin manufacturers will use the minimum required stabiliser that prevents reactions that can lead to polymer degradation during processing. This in turn impacts on the quality of the recycled material especially once we enter the circular economy where plastics will go through the loop many times particularly as the level of recycled content reaches beyond 50 per cent.

If instead of being minimally-stabilised, if the bottles were designed for constant recycling, the plastic quality could be maintained and this would improve recycling rates. In many cases the stabilisers need to be present during their initial processing as this is where oxidation reactions can occur that can trigger later impacts through gel formation or photo-chemical reactions during outdoor exposure.

Spot the difference

The fact is that were we to craft the type of highly recyclable bottle described above, we would end up with a very close replica of a brand’s original product. Only an expert would be able to notice the difference. So is it cost that is creating a road block?

A 360 degree recyclable bottle should actually cost less to produce, and here is why;

Caps produced of one polymer type in clear or white would mean a greater opportunity to recycle caps back into new caps that would reduce the need for new virgin resin.

Shedding the colours of the actual bottle would vastly reduce masterbatch costs and all the design cues would be focused on the label (with self-peeling or dissolvable glue) or stretch-sleeves. Recycling yields would increase making high-quality  recycled material more plentiful and less expensive. And the actual brand recycling story would be authentic.

These type of design details would greatly contribute to the total recyclability of a pack and actually only require a change in mindset rather than a massive upheaval.

Wrapping up

There is no reason not to make the changes suggested above.

We now have the cutting edge technologies to identify, sort and decontaminate post-consumer plastic – all we need is for brands to embrace the notion that what is currently deemed ‘recyclable’ is insufficient.

Working out good design principles for recycling requires brand owners to step up and voluntarily take responsibility for every facet of their packaging.

After all – we all share the same planet – it is time to make a real stand for how we look after it.

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Professor Kosior’s expertise in the plastics recycling sector spans 46 years, split between 23 years as an academic and 23 years working in plastic packaging recycling. He has been instrumental in designing numerous modern recycling plants and has achieved a number of patented recycling breakthroughs. In 2004 Professor Kosior founded Nextek Ltd to provide consultancy services to assist in the strategic approaches to sustainable packaging, waste reduction and minimal life cycle impact. He is involved with many industry associations, universities, and research organisations and is a Fellow of the Society of Plastics Engineering and Fellow of the Institute of Materials which awarded him the Prince Philip Medal for “Polymers in the Service of Man” in 2019. He also provides support to organisations such as the Earth Champions Foundation, Plastics Oceans, PEW Foundation Trust on the Project: Stopping Ocean Plastics.


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