Can we really design-out plastics waste, and avoid it ending up on our beaches and in our rivers and oceans, in the food chain and, ultimately, our bodies?
It’s a multi-billion dollar question that plastics retailers, packaging manufacturers, brands and politicians are trying to answer with increasing urgency. Recyclers are clearly part of the answer in the aftermath of a vociferous public backlash against plastic pollution, and with China refusing to take much of the recovered polymers exported from the UK and elsewhere.
Plastics packaging makes up 59% of EU plastics waste generation, while in the UK, 2.2 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste was generated in 2014, according to the Environment Agency.
In this context, clever design solutions to the issue of plastics waste are coming to the fore. These include ‘smart’ technology reuse schemes; designs to make disposable coffee cups, sachets and contaminated plastics potentially more widely recyclable; and the use of plastic recyclate sourced from marine litter.
There is also a strand of smart design innovation that goes beyond reuse and recycling, looking at replacing the polymers in products that make them difficult to recycle with other materials - from biodegradable cellulose-based film to edible food sachets made of seaweed.
Many of these innovations are in the early stages of their development. But the design and uptake of such solutions may well be on the way amid a concentrated multi-stakeholder push to address plastic waste – along with supermarkets and brands vying for leadership on the issue.
In January, prime minister Theresa May launched the Government’s 25-year environment plan, which promised a reform of the packaging recovery note (PRN) system. Its stated aim was to phase out ‘avoidable’ plastics waste but was light on the details of how this would be achieved.
Also announced within the plan was an initiative by WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) to collaborate with stakeholders to transform the UK’s plastics packaging system, which will launch later this year. The initiative will target single-use packaging and ensure that plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable, and that the recycled content of packaging is increased.compostable, and that the recycled content of packaging is increased.compostable, and that the recycled content of packaging is increased.
WRAP chief executive Marcus Gover said: “So far the solutions to plastic waste have been piecemeal. I am pleased to be leading this holistic initiative which will transform the UK’s plastics system. Working with the EMF, we will bring together every body, business and organisation involved in the life-cycle of plastics to make the move from a throwaway culture to one where resources are used over and over again.”
Joining-up thinking between product designers and recyclers – for example, to ensure that the pots, tubs and trays placed on the market are desirable for a recycler – can reap economic as well as environmental rewards. Globally, $80bn-$120bn is lost to the economy each year as a result of not properly recycling plastics, according to a 2016 McKinsey report.
At the World Economic Forum at Davos this year, the EMF announced that there are now 11 major companies signed up to using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025: Amcor, Ecover, Evian, L’Oréal, Mars, M&S, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Walmart, and Werner & Mertz.
Meanwhile back home, food retailer Iceland made a splash last month by boldly pledging to go plastics-free in its own brand packaging by 2023. And waste manager Terracycle, which has said it wants to do such a good job working with its recycling partners that it designs itself out of existence, is planning to launch a reuse scheme at next year’s Davos gathering.
The vision, according to chief executive Tony Szaky, is to “develop a one-stop shop platform for consumers to purchase as many of their everyday goods in durable, refillable packaging… everything from soap, shampoo and granola to ice cream and baby diapers.
“By transferring ownership of the package from the consumer to the manufacturer, that business can invest in a higher quality package that can be reused over many cycles. Under this new paradigm, manufacturers will likely use highly durable metals [as well as] highly durable plastics.”
Delta is a UK brand that makes edible sachets made of CO2-capturing seaweed. Sachets are a tricky thing to recycle which Delta’s product seeks to solve. The company won $200,000 as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Design Challenge along with a place on a year-long business accelerator to make its design marketable at scale.
Rodriguo Gonzalez, Delta co-founder, says: “We have been working as a start-up for three years to bring the technology to the manufacturing stage. Our compact machines produce sachets daily, directly at the point of sale, to lower the supply chain requirements for a natural material.”
Unilever is building a pilot plant to treat multi-layer sachets, which are notoriously tricky to recycle. The aim is to prove that its CreaSolv process is commercially viable.
The plant will extract the plastic from contaminated, used sachets, which the company then intends to use in packaging to create a circular resource loop. It has been working with the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging, based in Freising, Germany, on the technology, which is adapted from a method used to separate brominated flame retardants from waste electrical and electronic equipment polymers.
Fraunhofer suggests the process will be able to recover 6kg of pure polymers with the same energy effort as the production of 1kg of virgin polymer.
David Blanchard, Unilever’s chief R&D officer, says: “We made a commitment to help solve this problem, developing new recycling technologies. We intend to make this tech open source and would hope to scale the technology with industry partners, so others – including our competitors – can use it.”
Tetra Rex Bio-Based
In 2015, Tetra Pak launched a carton that used sugar cane as its plastic source rather than fossil fuels, thus reducing its carbon footprint, calling the product Tetra Rex Bio-Based. The bio-plastic is used for the laminate film in the carton body, neck opening and cap, and does away with the aluminium component.
Tetra Pak says its ambition has always been to provide 100% renewable packaging, and sugar cane and trees are renewable, including FSC-certified wood. The product is as recyclable as their regular cartons, but not all councils in the UK recycle them currently.
“We believe that only renewable materials have the potential to be fully circular by nature and climate neutral,” the firm states.
Tetra Pak has delivered more than 500 million packs of Tetra Rex Bio-Based packages since market launch in January 2015 and aims to deliver more than 330 million such bio-plastic packaging materials in 2018, constituting a third of Tetra Rex annual delivery in Europe.
The company says it is “encouraging the EU to introduce mandatory separate collection for beverage cartons, and will work with our industry partners to ensure solutions are in place by 2030 across Europe to fully recycle all the components in beverage cartons”. In 2016, 46% of the cartons were recycled across the EU.
Frugal cups, made by Frugalpac, are designed to be recyclable at paper recycling facilities, unlike specialist recyclers that can recycle only a tiny proportion of cups laminated with a plastic film. The Frugal cup’s clever design allows the plastic inner film to be separated easily from its recycled paperboard outer for recycling – following the standard process with other materials such as plastic magazine wrappers.
Importantly, the outer of the cup is not waterproofed, facilitating pulping of the paperboard. The cups, which the company describe as a “scalable solution to coffee cup waste”, are the invention of Martin Myerscough, who founded Frugalpac. Full production is anticipated by the end of February, with a manufacturing goal of more than 50 million cups this year. It says it is currently in advanced discussions with coffee shop chain Starbucks.
Another innovator looking to instigate consumer behaviour change is Cup Club, a winner of the EMF’s Circular Design Challenge. Only about 2% of customers buying hot drinks from coffee shops currently use their own reusable cup. The ‘club’ concept is basically a reusable cup subscription service, in which the cups can be dropped off at collection points to be washed and put back into service.
A key to the behaviour change aspect is technology. The service uses radio frequency ID tagging, a mobile phone interface and the ‘Internet of Things’, which can use embedded electronics in objects to generate data. This means it can “track individual cups and reward their users for being in the system”.
“By transferring ownership of the package from the consumer to the manufacturer, that business can invest in a higher quality package that can be reused over many cycles.”
Tony Szaky, Terracycle
Earlier this year, the Government said it would consider a 25p ‘latte levy’ on single-use disposable cups. This was proposed by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) to incentivise the use of reusable cups in an attempt to solve the problem that only one in 400 disposable paper cups used each year are recycled – an estimated 2.5 billion are thrown out every year in the UK.
Apart from reusable cups, there are other innovations on offer and in development, including edible cups made from waffle, fully biodegradable cups from Planglow and an origami-inspired cardboard design.
Most significantly, a new company has this year launched a disposable coffee cup called the Frugal Cup which is designed to be much more easily recyclable than its laminated alternative, and which the company claims can be recycled at any paper recycling mill.
The EAC has highlighted concerns about contamination, however, saying that the coffee shop firms should work together to find a solution: “We believe that more research needs to be done to establish whether contamination is a significant and justified barrier to widespread uptake of these new designs of disposable cups…Research should focus on how the design of paper cups can work around, or with, the manufacturing standard for ‘contaminated’ paper packaging by exploring ways of recycling cups with other contaminated food packaging.”
Coffee cups have become emblematic of the fight against plastics, but they are not the only product that is rarely recycled.
Globally, the billions of single-use multi-layer sachets are also something that manufacturers are seeking to tackle. Unilever is on the verge of putting to the test at scale a chemical process that extracts the sachets into their component parts so they can be fed into a circular process of being recycled and remade.
Meanwhile, a team at the University of Pittsburgh is using nanotechnology to make multi-layer packaging using layers of polyethene capable of being recycled without changing the chemical structure. And R&D firm Aronax Technologies Spain is looking to add a magnetic particle to plastic layers in packaging to make it easier to identify and separate at the recycling stage. Both teams recently won funding and support from a business accelerator as part of the EMF’s Circular Materials Challenge.
Richard McKinlay, head of circular economy at Axion, which specialises in working with packaging manufacturers to make their products recyclable, told MRW that sometimes changing a product’s packaging to make it easier to recycle can be as simple as replacing black trays with transparent ones or that a “PET/PE pouch could be redesigned to be a PP/ PE pouch with a barrier coating that does not affect the recyclability”. So it is possible to change packaging so it becomes recyclable and still functional, aesthetic considerations aside.
“The economics of domestic recycling do not yet stack up well. The challenge begins at the design stage. The issue is a complete supply chain one and the sector must work together.”
Richard McKinlay, Axion
Apart from targeting difficult-to-recycle products, brands and packaging companies are working to ensure their products are increasingly made from recycled plastics, and that the materials are easily sorted and recycled.
Among the most impressive of strategies drawing industry attention is using recycled marine plastic in containers. The British Plastics Federation Among the most impressive of strategies drawing industry attention is using recycled marine plastic in containers. The British Plastics Federation Among the most impressive of strategies drawing industry attention is using recycled marine plastic in containers. The British Plastics Federation (BPF) highlighted that, at the end of 2017, Ecover launched a washing up liquid bottle made of 50% litter from the sea and 50% from plastic recycled from other sources. The bottle, rolled out in Tesco stores, also uses 15% less plastic than Ecover’s traditional design. It is only a limited edition, but the company has vowed to use 100% recycled plastic in all its bottles by 2020.
Meanwhile, Terracycle underlined Proctor & Gamble’s commitment to using recovered marine plastics in several product lines. P&G launched a dark-grey Head & Shoulders bottle at the start of last year that contains up to 25% post-consumer beach plastic and is recyclable. The bottle launched in Carrefour supermarkets in France, with the aim of rolling them out across Europe by the end of 2018 in 90% of its hair care bottles.
The multinational also announced the mid-year launch of a limited run version of its Fairy washing up liquid, with the bottle made from 10% marine litter and 90% post-consumer plastic: “The aim of the limited-edition launch is primarily to help educate consumers to make them think about where their waste goes, and ultimately recycle more.”
Unilever has increasingly been using more recycled plastic in some of its brands as part of its strategy to increase the recycled plastic material content to 25% by 2025. Containers for some beauty and cleaning product lines are made from 25-100% recycled plastics: Seventh Generation US is 100% rHDPE, Love Beauty Planet US is 100% rPET, Caress US is 50% rPET, Sunlight SA is 50% rPET and Comfort UK is 25% rPET.
The food and toiletries giant pledged that its plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. And the firm commits to reducing the weight of its packaging by a third by 2020 – a new moulding technology means it has so far reduced the plastics in its bottles by 15%.
Marks & Spencer, meanwhile, has said it will “introduce products with reclaimed social plastics as a component, providing positive social benefit to the communities from which the materials are sourced”. It is not the first company to target this: computer giants HP and Dell work with non-profits such as Thread to work in countries such as Haiti to create plastics collection systems that benefit the locals.
M&S also aims to test the feasibility of making all its plastic packaging from one polymer group by 2025 in a bid to increase recycling. The retailer wants all its plastic packaging in the UK to be 100% recyclable and ‘widely recycled’ in the UK by 2022.
There are likely to be many possible benefits to such an approach: the retailer could aim at polymer recyclate markets which have more value and are therefore more likely to be recycled; consumers could be less confused about what to put in their recycling; and it would solve the challenges of recycling composites.
As WRAP chief executive Marcus Gover outlined in an open letter to industry last year in response to China’s refusal of plastic waste imports: “PET and HDPE bottles already have very strong markets (for example, for food-grade bottles, pipes and polyester fibres) and are high-value products.fibres) and are high-value products.
“Similarly, PP pots, tubs and trays have good markets (for example, for construction and automotive products). The challenge is with PET trays, PS and PVC. The markets for these are very limited.
“To address this, we really need to rationalise the polymers we use in packaging to HDPE/ PET bottles and PP pots, tubs and trays.”
But Axion’s McKinlay told MRW: “The economics of domestic recycling do not yet stack up well. The challenge begins at the design stage. The issue is a complete supply chain one and the sector must work together.”
The BPF, which represents plastics recyclers as well as the plastics industry, told MRW: “Improvement is needed in the design of certain plastic products to facilitate collection, sorting and separation [for] recycling.” But the organisation also called for the need for PRN reform, standards for feedstock, and consistent collection and on-the-go schemes.