Unnecessary waste can be avoided from the creation of a product by considering what will happen to what is designed after its use.
By Guillermo Dufranc, Author of Packaging to Save the Planet
The recycling task could be made easier if we consider simplification and standardization from the moment of creation. Although I am going to tell you about bottles, these concepts are valid for other types of packaging that are subjected to recycling.
It is important to consider what bottles should be like so that they are more recyclable and to be able to recognize them. Especially the plastic ones, which -in one way or another- will continue to exist. Recycling specialist Edward Kosior * shares a few considerations to support the recycling process.
(*) Edward Kosior has 46 years of experience in plastics recycling, as an academic and working in the industry. He has participated in the design of recycling plants and patented several advances in recycling.
On the one hand, plastics made our lives easier, allowed us to lower costs and make products more affordable. But the flip side is the challenging pollution problems they generate, from the release of greenhouse gases from the oil industry, to the waste that pollutes rivers and oceans.
It is better to reuse a container many times, and thus avoid having to consume the resources that recycling it would imply. But when it cannot be reused, or when structural breaks are already present, all that remains is to recycle the material. Throwing packaging into the environment should never be an option.
The reality is that plastic will continue to exist and, while that happens, something must be done about it.
It is clear that we have to take drastic measures and one of them is to greatly increase the recycling capacity. A good place to start is rethinking how packaging is designed. Most of the packaging we see was not intended to facilitate its recycling. It was designed with the primary goal of protecting its content, engaging the consumer, and differentiating from the competition through a brand story.
Improving recycling features is rarely on the priority list partly because there is no massive pressure from consumers, nor regulations that force both companies and individuals to behave differently.
Put the cap on
In the last 30 years, more than 20 million bottle caps were found during beach clean-ups around the world. We’d rather not count how many caps there are in the ocean. All caps should be attached to the bottle. Tethered caps may require more material than regular caps, but they can be designed to reduce their size, height, and thickness to optimize them. Likewise, the economic benefit should not outweigh the environmental benefit, but a balance should be sought.
The European Union published Directive 2019/904, which requires the use of tethered caps on all PET bottles of up to 3 liters. Companies have until July 2024 to comply with the regulations.
Most plastic bottle caps are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, # 2), or sometimes polypropylene (PP, # 5). Separating these types of polymers in the recycling process is tricky. That's why they end up in low-value applications, or in a garbage dump.
Ideally the same material would be unified by country, by region or globally. I know this may seem too extreme, but if all the caps were natural white, they could all be recycled together without having to separate them by color. But I think that’s almost impracticable because the color of the cap is a point of differentiation for the consumer, since thanks to it they can distinguish flavors or brands.
Colored plastic bottles are much more difficult to recycle profitably compared to clear plastic ones. When all the colored plastics are put together, a gray color is produced, which has little commercial demand. Black plastics are generally not recognized by infrared scanners at sorting centers, so they often end up in the garbage dump or landfill.
"Let's be clear, let's be green" is Sprite’s message, which in several countries decided to resort to clear plastic and permanently remove the green color from its bottle. A color that had been accompanying them since 1959. It is a brave move that has a positive impact. Recycling pigmented plastics represents greater complexity in the recycling process because it takes longer to get the quantities needed for deliveries to recycling plants and they remain in stock for longer times.
The ideal bottle would be clear, white, or gray. Shrink sleeves could be used to ensure the brand is clearly visible, and that the sleeves are easy-to-remove to be separated in the recycling process. Although this suggestion can be seen as a loss of brand assets, changes are already being seen in this regard, and this is very good.
Many of the adhesives used on labels contaminate recycling streams. Instead, you can opt for labels that have easy-to-remove adhesives or move to shrink sleeves. Those that wrap the container and copy its shape. Aggressive glues are a problem, especially for some recyclers.
In April 2021, Evian (from Danone) launched a bottle without a label and which has the logo embossed on the body of the bottle. The cap is pink; well, it still leaves room for improvement. This new 400ml bottle is made with 100% recycled plastic.
Salus brand (also from Danone) in Uruguay and Lanjaron in Spain did the same. They have the legal texts embossed on the back and the barcode printed on the cap. The bottle is also made of 100% recycled PET (rPET).
Removing the label is a very daring decision, but it avoids the use of a production resource and also eliminates the need to recycle it, so the savings are double. Many more brands joined the label-less development and surely more will follow suit.
The ideal bottle
If we develop highly recyclable bottles, they are likely to be very similar to those used by brands nowadays and which provide a good conversation starter with consumers.
Is cost an obstacle? I used to believe that using garbage as a raw material was cheap, but it turns out that transporting, sorting, selling, and processing it makes it more expensive. Sure, the system is created to produce new bottles. If we change the system, the costs should go down.
Removing the color from the bottles would reduce the costs of masterbatches (which give the plastic its color), and it would focus all design elements on the structural design and on labels with water-soluble glue (or shrink sleeves). Of course, we also have to speed up and improve shrink sleeve recycling.
If the recycling performance increases, recycled material would be more widely available and at lower prices.
We need a change in mindset, and then communicate it to the consumers.
Likewise, we have to forget about the lie that recycling is enough: it is the last resort that we have to aim for after reducing and reusing.
Guillermo Dufranc is passionate about changing the world with packaging. He is the author of Packaging to Save the Planet which can be found on Amazon. He works at Tridimage, a leading packaging design agency, helping brands to find their sustainable path. He gives talks, training sessions and workshops.