Sustainable Packaging Series: Recycling by design
In the US, 95% of plastic packaging is used only once before going to incineration or landfill. That’s the equivalent of $80–120 billion worth of material annually, being lost to the economy after a single use.
Globally, the statistics are not much better. 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, but only 9% is actually recycled. (The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics report).
The plastic issue can hardly have failed to capture our attention. So why, with all the headlines and social media chatter, are we not yet moving towards a more circular economy?
We’re one part of a complex ecosystem. We’re reliant on what brands and manufacturers put into the system in the first place and helping us to understand what to do with it at end-of-life. And whilst we’re responsible for making sure it gets into the recycling stream in the first place, local authorities, states and government, are responsible for making sure the infrastructure is there to direct it to appropriate recycling. And then we have recyclers who need to make it work commercially to ensure it isn’t diverted to incineration or landfill.
As packaging designers, we see these relationships and the tensions. We try and develop seamless links in this chain, creating innovations in what is produced, nudging the consumer to do the right thing with it and that once disposed of it can be captured back into a circular system.
Consumers are demanding brands to take greater responsibility for their impact on the environment. By integrating sustainability, it can enhance consumers view of brands as demonstrated by Unilever, whose ‘Sustainable Living’ brands grew over 46% faster than the rest of the business and delivered over 70% of all their turnover growth.
When designing packaging we need to make sure we achieve a win, win, win approach. A win for the brand: creating increased sales. A win for consumer: a desirable product that performs better than what’s come before. And finally, a win for the environment: pack and product that considers the impact on the environment through its whole life cycle.
Good design needs to nudge consumers to use and dispose of products in the correct way. These can be achieved in many ways: Just Eat delivery adding pre ticked opt out on disposable utensils options, local authority’s reducing the size of general waste bins and increasing the size of recycling bins, or financial nudges like Pret doubling the reusable coffee cup discount. The Abbey Well Spring Bottle has structural ribs and arrows to encourage the consumer to twist and crush the bottle compacting it for recycling efficiency.
Good design isn’t just thinking about the pack in isolation but how it can play its part in helping the wider system of recycling be the most effective.
Materials for current recycling infrastructure
As packaging designers, we must work with brands on smart material choices. Design decisions about materials, how they’re combined, and the colours selected heavily impact the commercial desirability of that pack for future recycling. If it’s heavily tinted or made from a complex laminate, chances are the cost of recovery exceeds the material re-sale value.
A big problem in recycling is highly coloured pigments in plastics, many brands are reliant on these bright brand colours for recognition. This is great for sales and brand identity but not for the recycler. Clear PET is by far the most valuable (£222.50 per tonne) compared to coloured PET (£50 per tonne, Figures from Wrap) and therefore the most widely recycled material as it can be made into any other colour. Is that bright coloured bottle really worth it if going to be rejected by recyclers? Brands need to stop using the plastic colour to define them and bring the consumers on board with a more meaningful story in order to achieve brand recognition and loyalty.
Sprite has switched its iconic green bottle, used for last 58 years, to clear plastic to help make it easier to recycle. They launched their “clear is the new green” campaign with a strong coms campaign to inform the consumer and engage them with the change. This is a huge step to abandon their brand colour but taking such drastic steps to embrace sustainability should be celebrated and encourage other brands to follow.
What is and isn’t widely recycled
We should be focusing on is using materials that have the highest probability to be recycled. While innovation in materials is fast paced, brands need to keep up to date with what is commercially recycled. Recycling aluminium is well understood, it’s widespread, it’s profitable and an environmentally sound process. Making a can from recycled aluminium reduces it carbon footprint by 95%, but with plastic it isn’t that simple. Virtually all plastics can be recycled, but often highly specialised. If there’s only one location in the UK that does it, chances are your old pack won’t make it there.
We should also consider all of the components and how labels and closures might make the process even harder. With our current mechanical recycling system, we are limited to the number of cycles plastics can go through, so we need to make sure we have other downstream markets who want the plastic for other products.
Springbond is an innovative carpet underlay made from recycled PET plastic bottles and other single use plastics. Each roll takes 180 plastic bottles out of circulation and at the end of its life it can be recycled again, a fully circular system.
New chemical recycling methods are being developed and offer an exciting future opportunity, but it won’t save us now…we must design for recycling and help increase recycling rates.
Garçon wines have designed their bottle with recycling in mind. They are made from 100% rPET, with PP and PE screw caps and PP labels so all of its components can pass through the same recycling stream. Consumers aren’t required to separate any of the parts and the label is glued with an adhesive that allows for easy separation. This radical redesign of the wine bottle has captured consumers attention not only for its sustainability credentials but because its offering them the additional benefit of letterbox delivery making it perfect for the gifting market.
Help develop the market
The vast majority of the over 2 million tonnes of plastic packaging used in the UK each year is made from new, rather than recycled plastic. It takes 75% less energy to make a plastic shampoo bottle from recycled content rather than virgin materials, but is often more expensive. A drop in oil prices due to COVID-19 means the recycled waste stream markets are finding it harder to compete with even cheaper virgin plastics, prolonging the transition. With landfill and incineration costs less than the recycled value, the financial incentives are making it difficult for brands to make the change. Many are struggling to meet previously stated sustainability commitments to replace portions of their products with recycled plastic. They could even find themselves selling products at a loss which is equally unsustainable. As a result, we could see companies increasingly return to producing virgin plastic.
Ecover are using 50% recycled polypropylene plastic caps across their washing up liquids. PP is used for lots of bottle caps and is technically recyclable but in reality, isn’t as there aren’t the facilities due to a perceived lack of value. By doing this they are hoping to create more demand for recycled polypropylene.
In order to move towards a more circular economy we need to shift understanding of the true value in materials, which in turn will influence behaviour. Brands need to adopt recycled materials, embrace the differences and inevitable compromises, and talk about them in a way that brings consumer’s along on the journey.
Ren Skincare is leading the way in the sustainable beauty, the brand has embraced the new grey aesthetic of recycled plastic and leveraged it in their marketing as a sign of clean beauty. “Grey is the new green, proving clearer plastic doesn’t always mean cleaner”.
As designers we can help by promoting the use of recycled plastics, in turn making them higher value. Embracing the new aesthetic, helping to communicate this through identity and structural changes, and celebrating the change. It’s one thing to use recycled materials, but another to gain a competitive advantage or make consumers understand what is a mundane and technical subject and turn it into a positive and unique element of the brand.
We aren’t simply going to be able to design ourselves out of this crisis, the systems need to be in place to support it. Recycling is a chain, built up of local governments, consumers, policymakers, manufacturers and recyclers and if any link fails then the whole system falls down. If each link works to make improvements the effects can be huge. Brands, consumers, governments and commercial recyclers are all vital links to ensure a cyclical system. We need to find the right balance of financial incentives and infrastructure to increase the use of recycled material in packaging. Consumers are a vital part in the chain. If we don’t vote with our wallets and then don’t take steps to follow the systems and dispose, recycle, reuse or refill then the chain breaks down. Brands that don’t start to rethink their packaging in a more sustainable way will be abandoned by consumers.
Echo Visual Example: Semi-Durable Aluminium Can Refill System
90% of packaging gets recycled in our kitchens yet only 50% does in our bathrooms. How can recycling by design to encourage people to help improve this statistic?
Moving from a traditional plastic shampoo bottle to an aluminium refill offers significant environmental benefits. By using a durable reusable pump, we avoid unnecessary waste and are able to design in improved usability. The aluminium can is 100% recycled and recyclable with the highest rates of recovery, its recycled more than twice as often as plastic! This format works well at shelf and is also suited to DTC.
The can cartridges are loaded and unloaded mess free by simply twisting the pump collar.