Professor Edward Kosior, CEO and founder of recycling consultancy Nextek, explains how good design principles can help brand owners to overcome the barriers to achieving optimum recycling.
In 2017 the UK generated 3.4 Mt of plastic waste. Roughly one-third of this was sent to landfill, one third to incineration, and one third to recycling. To make matters worse the UK’s limited recycling capacity meant only 0.4 Mt of plastic waste was recycled in the country.
The remaining 0.7 Mt was exported to other countries, supposedly to be recycled. Some of these end destinations have poor waste management practices leading to waste being illegally dumped, resulting in plastic entering waterways and marine environments.
Shocking as this is, none of this information will come as a surprise to most of you. Plastic leaking into our lives and destroying our precious wildlife has been well publicised.
What is less well documented is the fact that, despite claims to the contrary, most recycling features in packaging are bolted on to satisfy regulations rather than prioritised and clearly thought through.
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 take a closer look at this.
Topping it all
It might seem like a small thing, but over the last 30 years, more than 20 million bottle caps and lids were found during beach cleaning activities around the world. We have lost track of how many bottle caps enter our oceans and wash up on shore, yet these caps are among the 5 main ocean trash items that are deadly to sea life.
Here are the changes that would solve this issue:
In an ideal world, all caps would never leave the bottle. By tethering caps, the total volume of caps being recycled would be boosted to 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 be of huge benefit to the environment.
Currently, 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.
There is no reason why we can’t adopt one polymer type per country to simplify the separation problem.
If all caps were either natural or white, we would actually capture, recycle and re-use all caps ad-infinitum. Surely the consumer in each of us does not need a colour-coded cap to recognise our favourite beverage? Wouldn’t we prefer a cleaner planet?
All label no glue
Moving on down the bottle to the label, Evian recently made a bold sustainability statement with their label-free bottle. It may seem like a minor detail, but the fact that they have kept the pink cap still leaves room for improvement. Were Evian to create a totally ‘naked’ bottle, from cap to base, their statement and their action would be even more impactful.
Certainly, 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. Going further, we need to ensure that these labels don’t bleed inks. The labels themselves need to be readily separated and recycled to avoid any unwanted waste.
None of the above suggestions should impact the brand’s visual cues - these are technical details that can be easily addressed and would make a huge difference to overall recycling streams.
Back to basics
Of course, it all starts with the actual 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%.
If instead of being minimally stabilised, and 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, cross-linking or photochemical reactions during outdoor exposure.
As for the rainbow of colours, brands are currently deploying, this only goes to show how little closed-loop 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 potentially 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 ironic 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 the packaging designer's 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.
The fact is that, were we to design the type of highly recyclable bottle I have 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 roadblock?
A 360-degree recyclable bottle should actually cost less to produce, and here is why;
Starting with 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.
Challenging the status quo is a matter of adopting good design principles that embrace recyclability to the core. Ultimately this is not about creating a green image but rather about developing a deep green and lighter footprint that is sustainable.
There is no reason not to make these changes. We now have the cutting-edge technology to identify, sort and decontaminate post-consumer waste - all we need is for brands to embrace the notion that what we currently deem ‘recyclable’ is not enough.
Good design principles for recycling require brand owners to face and overcome the so-called barriers to achieve optimum recycling. In truth, these barriers are not that challenging as I have explained here. Paving an authentic route to total recyclability means shedding current worn-out, lacklustre recycling features that do very little to shift the dial on how we address our environmental issues.
It is high time to make a real stand for how we look after our planet and shed the fallacy that our current recycling efforts are sufficient - because they are not.