Climate change and sustainable development are two of the biggest issues facing society today and are perhaps foremost in our minds. It is increasingly important for companies to reduce the environmental impacts of products and services through their entire life cycle. Those companies failing to address environmental performance in product design and development will find it increasingly difficult to compete in the global market.
Packaging can be found everywhere and it not only fulfills a functional role to contain and protect a product during transportation, storage, in-store and in the consumer’s possession, but packaging has an evolved function that has an influence on the “product experience”. It is also considered an informational vehicle, carrying details of the product ingredients, usage, storage, nutrition and price and is often referred to as “the silent salesman” due to its ability to influence consumers at the point of purchase and acts as a form of brand communication. It’s no wonder so much effort goes into the conceptualisation, design and production thereof and continual refinement of the product. Historically, package design has been consumer driven, but with sustainability in mind, it’s imperative that packaging design is informed not only by technical, and consumer need, but by resource consumption and awareness of environmental impact. This means, that amongst other things, packaging should be designed to use the minimum amount of resources for purpose and once it has completed its job, the scope for recovery maximised.
Due to innovation, there is currently a large shift among manufacturers towards light-weighting or using less packaging where both environmental and economic boxes are effectively ticked; the former due to the reduction of the weight of the bottles and the likelihood of less material entering the waste stream, the latter due to reduced costs associated with decreased raw material consumption by weight as well as a reduction in the energy required to make the bottle and transportation thereof. This light-weighting, although beneficial does have a knock-on effect in package handling and from a recycling perspective as more material needs to be collected to make tonnage. This being said, by considering light-weighting, reducing the environmental impact of the pack and effective design for recyclability combined with proactive recovery and recycling initiatives in place, PET becomes a very attractive proposition for brand owners. The value add for customers is that they can still get a functional pack that is aesthetically attractive, environmentally conscious, with a reduced environmental impact throughout the product life cycle, from resource consumption to end-use and, finally, recycling.
Some of the biggest design challenges or issues for easing recyclability in South Africa at present highlighted as follows, with specific recommendations for PET bottles:
- Choosing Material Type: Minimise the number of different plastics used and specify plastics that can be recycled together or easily separated in the recycling process.
- Material Identification: Major plastic components (container, caps, and lids) should carry a clearly visible material identifier to facilitate the visual identification of plastic types during manual separation.
- Composite Materials /Barrier Layers: Consider the use of thin layered composites carefully and avoid lightweight plastic laminates which are not cost-effective to recycle.
- Colour of Plastic: Avoid coloured plastic material as well as direct printing onto PET bottles. It is very difficult to fully remove ink pigment, resulting in pinholing during reprocessing and residual solvent can also leads to yellowing and contamination of the recyclate.
- Closures / Closure Liners /Cap Sleeves / Seals: Ideally should all be recyclable themselves. Don’t use materials that have the same density, or else they cannot be sorted and removed during the flotation stage of recycling. For PET bottles specifically, don’t use PET closures, ideally use PP/HDPE and avoid metal caps.
- Labels and Adhesives: Adhesive use and surface coverage should be minimized and be designed to completely detach from the container with the use of water soluble or hot melt alkali soluble adhesives. Avoid paper labels, labels that delaminate, foil seals and rather use polyethylene and polypropylene as preferred label materials. If possible, use the glue on the label only. Avoid printing directly onto bottles.
- Inks: Avoid metal inks or inks that would dye the wash solution (bleed).
- Avoid Self-declared Environmental Claims: If it’s not independently assessed by a credible authority, don’t say it!
- Avoid additives: Avoid chemical additives, such as those that aid break down of the material or anti statics etc. and make it known that they are in the product.
- Closing the Loop: Consider the possibility of including recycled plastics in the packaging and support the recovery of plastics by providing a market for reprocessed material, increase cost savings and reduce the environmental impact of the package.
The relationship of packaging production and recycling, by its inherent nature, continues to develop, providing exciting challenges for designers to innovate and constantly challenge the boundaries of good design, conscious design and design that meets the needs of all stakeholders in the supply chain.
Design for Recyclability provides an opportunity for feedback loops and constant improvement. The value of PET needs to be maintained to keep it as a viable packaging material and, in this regard, PETCO encourages its stakeholders to rise to the challenge and continue to innovate with their package design as well as provide feedback on challenges and lessons learnt, by way of case studies that can be presented to stakeholders.
PETCO has developed a fact sheet called Recyclability by Design, an essential guide for all those involved in development, design, marketing and procurement. The aim of this fact sheet is to encourage designers to consider recycling possibilities, provide guidelines for those wishing to make their packaging (more) recyclable and provide brand owners and manufacturers with information to prevent their packaging inadvertently interfering with existing plastic recycling streams.
Keep a look out for the updated guidelines which should be released in the near future!