Published 1 year ago.
About a 4 minute read.
Image: Claudio Schwartz/Unsplash
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
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
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.
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
that can sift through more than 120,000 tonnes of waste per year. This is
Infrared tech and magnetic
tests through flotation are already widely used by recyclers to identify
different polymer types. Now,
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.
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
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
or applications, sorting for recycling would be a far simpler process.
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
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
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.
Published Mar 3, 2022 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET