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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Design for Recycling:
High-Tech or Back to Basics?

Maybe before companies spend millions on futuristic high-tech, they should go back to the drawing board and start sketching from a different perspective. Because there is no technology more powerful than the creative mind.

Plastic packaging has a bad rep. While people appreciate the increased food safety, the added convenience and the low cost of plastic, they also see it as excessive and damaging. According to a 2021 Trivium report, it’s important to 67 percent of consumers that their products are in fully recyclable packaging. So, it’s no wonder brand owners are determined to give them just that.

In recent years, we have seen an explosion of new technology to make recycling easier and more efficient — groundbreaking innovations in sorting and separation that promise to edge us nearer to that 100 percent recyclable target. In the same breath, there are plenty of simple ways that designers can do their part. By going back to basics and rethinking packaging with end-of-life solutions as a priority, they can eliminate waste at the design stage, not as an afterthought.

Identify and separate

One of the major barriers to recycling post-consumer plastic is the fundamental challenge of separating the bleach bottles from the yoghurt pots. Luckily, sorting technologies have come a long way from a line of humans along a conveyor belt. Finnish company ZenRobotics has replaced manual pickers with AI-powered robot arms that can sift through more than 120,000 tonnes of waste per year. This is next-generation recycling.

Infrared tech and magnetic density tests through flotation are already widely used by recyclers to identify different polymer types. Now, researchers at Aarhus University have developed hyperspectral cameras that can discern plastics based on spectral information, enabling them to separate up to 12 different polymer types and deliver the 95 percent pure streams that the convertor industry demands.

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Some say digital watermarks are set to be the next big thing in design for recycling. The Holy Grail project is a cross-industry collaboration optimising recycling through smart packaging. Tiny codes covering the surface, imperceptible to the human eye, carry all sorts of information that can be detected by high-resolution cameras along a sorting line and can track products across the entire supply chain.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that

All plastic products contain an array of additives to improve functional properties, add colour and protect against deterioration or fire. Some additives make recycling harder by limiting next-use applications, but some make it easier. For example, some additives can reduce yellowing or improve thermal stability during mechanical recycling, keeping the quality of rPET high enough to use in a closed loop for many cycles. With the prices of rPET skyrocketing, this would seem like a sensible investment for plastic producers.

It is generally thought that colour additives hinder recycling. Colour cannot be removed once it has been added to plastic. You can't turn purple shampoo bottles into white ones ever again, no matter how hard you try. What it can do is differentiate between different types of plastic. Take laundry detergent bottles, for example. They tend to be white; so, suppose you can sort out the white plastic at the recycling facility. In that case, it will most likely be the right kind of plastic for detergent applications. If brands could come to a consensus on colours for different polymer types or applications, sorting for recycling would be a far simpler process.

Keep it simple

Packaging needs to serve several functions besides basic protection, not least of which is providing shelf appeal. Designers must make many decisions regarding shape, colour and texture in order to maximise function and consumer engagement. Recyclability is probably not their first thought; but according to Willemijn Peeters — founder of circular plastics consultancy Searious Business — it should be.

"Simple changes like sticking to mono-materials can make all the difference,” she says. “It's in the producer's interest to make recycling easy and get back their materials as pure and high-value as possible. This always starts with design.”

Avoiding unnecessary elements such as loose or small components can dramatically simplify and speed up processing times. However, designers must also look beyond their own industry and consult with the rest of the value chain to improve compatibility with machinery.

Maybe before companies spend millions on futuristic high-tech, they should go back to the drawing board and start sketching from a different perspective. Because there is no technology more powerful than the creative mind.