Are existing ‘Design for Recycling’ guidelines doing enough to cut down on plastic packaging waste? Dr. Abi Mountain, head of Product and Partnerships at Itero Technologies, presents an alternative idea – designing for circularity, in which the industry would embrace chemical recycling as a complementary technology and create a closed loop for plastic materials.

While guidelines and frameworks exist to optimise the design of products and packaging for traditional recycling methods, including chemical recycling can greatly boost the circularity of plastics in the long-term.

Whether we like it or not, plastics will continue to play an important role in our lives. We are therefore faced with technical and systemic challenges when managing plastic at the end of its useful life. This means finding ways to most effectively implement the waste hierarchy to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastics in order to minimise both the environmental and societal impacts associated with residual (essentially non-recyclable) waste plastics.

This is where designing for recycling comes in – how do we design plastic packaging to reduce plastic use, increase re-use, and maximise recyclability?

‘Design for Recycling’ (DfR) guidelines and recyclability assessment tools currently focus on mechanical recycling pathways and their requirements (list of prominent examples from the past few years listed at the end of this article) – this is logical, considering that mechanical recycling is currently the predominant method of recycling plastics. Yet despite these guidelines, which push for mono-materials and minimal additives, in practice, many plastics and packaging designs contain multiple additives and/or layers to improve performance as well as diverse polymer types mixed together, while some simply do not provide enough end-of-use clarity for disposal or sortation.

The result: large amounts of mixed waste plastic streams incapable of being processed by mechanical recycling technologies ending up in landfill, incineration, or in the environment. This is particularly true for plastic packaging used in food-contact applications, which accounts for almost 40% of all plastic packaging used in Europe.

Chemical recycling of mixed plastics is a complementary route which allows for the recycling of a multitude of plastic products which cannot be mechanically recycled, including multi-layer packaging and mixed and contaminated waste streams. These chemical recycling pathways can divert plastics from landfill, incineration, and the environment, and recover valuable resources that can be converted into virgin-quality polymers, thereby displacing virgin oil needed to produce plastics. As the chemical recycling industry is growing, some estimates predict it to scale to process 3Mt of feedstock by 2030.

While the scale of the chemical recycling market is currently low, we at Itero believe now is the time to discuss how “Design For Circularity” (DfC) could help to maximise the volumes of “non-recyclable” waste plastic packaging which, if it can’t be mechanically recycled, could be chemically recycled. These designs will take a number of years to be implemented, by which time the chemical recycling market will be at a sufficient scale for the DfC changes to have a positive impact.

Many chemical recycling technologies, like the process we have developed at Itero, have been specifically developed to successfully manage commingled plastics and multi-layered plastics as well as waste plastic streams with a certain amount of contamination. By including chemical recycling when designing for circularity, we can help to increase yields and quality of circular products from chemical recycling processing.

So, what can chemical recyclers do? We can provide feedback to product designers on the recyclability of their products through different chemical recycling technologies. Just as with mechanical recycling, where certain additives and dyes have an adverse effect on the recycling process and product quality, the chemistry of common fillers and property enhancers can be detrimental downstream for chemical recycling technologies and/or their products. By understanding which materials can be more easily recycled through chemical recycling methods, designers can make more informed decisions about material selection and product design.

But chemical recyclers cannot make these changes by ourselves. A whole-system approach needs to be taken where, from the consumer onwards, the process is changed to maximise the circularity of plastics. Consumers need to be given clarity on what is recyclable; collections need to accommodate all those waste streams which can be recycled by both mechanical and chemical recyclers; and waste management sorting must be adapted to maximise both mechanical recycling yields and residuals for chemical recycling. But this starts at the D4C stage so that all actors along the value chain can, with certainty, ensure the correct pathway is chosen.

In large-scale industries such as plastics, early intervention is critical for wholesale change. While chemical recycling as an industry is in its early stages, shifting to a wider circular system will take a concerted effort at every leverage point, and designing for circularity could be a transformative change to improve recycling rates. As the old saying goes, circular plastic wasn’t built in a day.

Many ‘design for recycling’ (DfR) guidelines and recyclability assessment tools focus for both rigid and flexible plastic packaging by industry associations and organisations over the last few years, including:

Dr. Abi Mountain is the Head of Product & Partnerships at Itero Technologies. Abi drives the development of partnerships for Itero across the recycling value chain in tandem with managing product strategy.Before joining Itero, Abi received her PhD in chemistry from University College London in collaboration with University of Oxford, DSM and LANXESS.

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