Plastic Products – Designed for Recycling?

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Courtesy of UNTHA UK LTD

When it comes to the UK’s approach to plastics recycling, local authorities, waste management firms and members of the public often come under fire. But to what extent would greater product design considerations enable further progress to be made, considers Chris Oldfield?

A recent study conducted by recycling association Recoup¹, found that plastic is the material consumers are most uncertain about, when it comes to secondary use. This consumer uncertainty will undoubtedly have a negative impact on plastic recycling rates, something Recoup’s chief executive Stuart Foster is reported to have, quite rightly, pointed out at the annual Kent Resource Partnership (KRP) event in March.

Such findings act as a startling reminder that the recycling landscape is far from perfect. Councils could of course do more to encourage progress, by accepting a greater number of plastic types. These same councils, supported by central Government and the industry, could also better educate the public as to the options that exist for different plastic ‘wastes’, other than disposal. There has been a call for plastic packaging materials to showcase more informative recycling labels too.

Admittedly all of these suggestions would drive improvements, but could even more be done? It is great to read about technological innovations that make mixed plastic recycling physically and commercially feasible, but is there too great a focus on plastics when they have seemingly reached the end of their first life?

For some time now we have been overwhelmed with commentary about the circular economy – a restorative approach to encouraging the intuitive reuse of materials. But this ‘closed loop’ concept has no start nor finish point, so surely every stage in the model needs to be as carefully assessed as the next. We should not just be focusing on what to do with plastic materials once they have been used.

Greater effort is needed from the outset – at the drawing board stage – to support the re-use and recycling of plastic products in their later lives. We have so many talented designers in the UK, who need to have a greater involvement in our sustainability agenda.

It should no longer be acceptable to produce items simply because it is the way they have always been made. Yes certain production methods may satisfy customer requirements, or pose the most commercially attractive option. But they may also make the reuse or recycling of plastic component parts incredibly tough.

Ordinary PET bottles for example, are difficult enough to recycle, with more complex items such as children’s toys even trickier. However, the rationalisation of material use at the design stage would help alleviate some of the local authorities’ collection pressures and perhaps, in turn, overcome some of the aforementioned consumer uncertainty.

Such suggestions are not new. In fact, the circular economy draws upon several age-old principles such as the ‘cradle to cradle’ theory, first coined by Swiss architect Walter R Stahel in the 1970s. But this ‘whole product lifecycle’ concept has perhaps never been as pertinent. Coca Cola’s collaboration with ECO Plastics has been ground-breaking in this respect.

We should not mistake more considerate product design for a panacea though. Plastics recycling progress is still reliant on the effort, involvement and cooperation of so many different stakeholders – the Government, local authorities, waste management firms, MRFs, retailers, the general public and more. Yet with ‘closed loops’ currently receiving so much attention, it is important to ensure there are no missing links.

¹Recoup Consumer Insight Study 2014 

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