Hery Henry, a leading expert on design for recyclability at Wipak, a manufacturer of innovative packaging solutions, tells us how design influences recyclability and how consumers and industry can both contribute to a more circular economy.
“When we talk about design for recyclability, we mean smarter designs for the products we consume”, Hery Henry explains. In 2020, only about 38% of plastic packaging in the EU is actually recycled. “When designers are thinking about how to make packaging, they also need to be thinking about how it will be disposed of after it has been used.”
Material, shape, and colors determine how well packaging can be recycled
“The hierarchy goes: Reduce, reuse, recycle”,
“So anything that we can reduce or that we can just simply not have in the value chain in the first place is always a win. We need to design everything to be as small and as light as possible”, he says. “The shape of packaging is a slightly tricky problem to solve, because the different parts of the supply chain require different types of design”, says Hery Henry. “When people carry them, when they’re in the logistics chain, when you put them on a shelf, and also how well they fit through the sorting and the recycling process – that’s all down to the design.”
Do we have to wrap butter in the same material we make cars from?
When it comes to material, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. “Butter is still wrapped in aluminum. We've found a way to have a completely metal-free butter wrapper, it’s paper based and can be recycled just after scraping, without washing”, Hery Henry explains. Early tests show that the carbon footprint is roughly 70% lower and could be much more if mass produced. “Another magic word is mono material: Making packaging out of only one type of plastic”, Hery Henry says. While to most of us consumers it all looks the same, some packaging can contain up to 11 layers of different types of material.
Not all plastic is created equal
Different plastics turn into different kinds of resins, so they melt at different temperatures, for instance, which means that what you can make out of them will differ. And most of the time you cannot reuse the plastic for the same application after recycling. What’s more, different colors need to be considered. “When we use chemical recycling, we do not discriminate according to colors, we can do each equally well. But with mechanical recycling, some colors are indeed better than others, because when you reuse them later on in the form of the recyclate, you end up with funky looking packaging and if you mix lots of colors you get sort of a dirty gray or brown”, Hery Henry says.
Why glass is not a better solution
“Let’s take a very practical example. We package a lot of things in glass bottles, and we have the impression that is a sustainable solution in a way, because glass has been recycled for a long time. The capacity’s there and glass is glass, which means that whatever glass you take and recycle, you can reuse it as glass. However, on the flip side, bottles are very heavy. They break easily and they’re awkward to transport, they use up a lot of space when packed in a box. A lot of the things we pack in bottles could be packed in stand-up pouches that don’t fall over, that look quite clever and that are much lighter. And if they are mono material, they can be easily recycled”.
“However, even with the lack of recycling, the overall carbon footprint of plastic compared to other solutions like aluminum or glass is actually very low. So, what we desperately need to solve is the end-of-life issue. We need to get those valuable materials back and put them back into use. The good news is that the industry has the solutions, like better sorting facilities and, for example, digital watermarks. The problem now is that we lack recycling capacity. But luckily, there is lots of investment coming. It just takes a few years to actually kick in”.
Is Design for Compostability a solution?
While compostable plastic packaging sounds very appealing, the options for it are unfortunately still very limited today. The plastic cannot simply be disposed of in your backyard but must be composted industrially in a high-energy facility. “And so that carbon footprint is very high compared to just traditional packaging. At the moment, the end result is actually detrimental to the environment. But just like wind and solar energy, where 20 years ago the output was quite poor and today they are viable options, this could also be true for compostable plastics in the future”, says Hery Henry.
Consumer decisions matter
Remember the adage of reduce, reuse, and recycle. Hery Henry: “If we’re able to reduce, not use something at all, that’s the best. If we’re able to use, for instance, refill solutions or very lightweight solutions, also good. And then if we must, then we should make sure that we actually do have a good look at the package that we hold in our hands”.
“Consumers need a little bit of help in making better choices”, Hery Henry explains. Data shows that consumers are willing to pay extra when they know that the packaging is more sustainable and has a credibly lower carbon footprint. “It also has long term implications of how we make decisions in the future. If we like something, we’re more likely to return to it if it’s in line with our values. And again, research shows that consumers feel very guilty, are very unhappy about the choices that they’re forced to make. And there’s that lingering feeling of not really being in control of sustainability around the household. So whenever we as an industry are able to provide the signals, both for the decision and then for the long-term decision-making after that, we’re winning”, concludes Hery Henry.