To Transform the Plastic Crisis: Standardize Packaging and Plastic Products
(This is part of the series for 7 Main Areas of Focus to Transform the Plastic Crisis)
Most business, product and activities that are practiced globally have standards on them for various safety, quality and durability reasons. From automotive, foods, gasoline, airports, computers to even jeans… there are standards in the ways that things are designed, laid out, produced, and maintained.
When looking at materials cardboard boxes can only be produced in certain standard size and colors, as is the same with paper and certain timber products. Standards help keep costs low ensuring economies of scale and also increases safety as in automotive and aviation. We regard this as expected for all these industries.
For plastics though — standards are lacking at best, when it comes to the production and design of the material. Yes — there are the 7 plastic codes in those infamous triangular arrows — however, code #7 usually works to include “all other” making it a big loop hole. In addition to the make-up of the plastic compound there is also consideration of coloring agents/types/amounts used, labeling products and types, product size and make-up and level of difficulty to separate from non-plastic materials that might be in the same product (i.e computer boards). This “freedom” to produce at will leads to challenges when the product reaches it’s end of life and needs to be processed in either recycling or incineration facilities. The varying chemical makeup in combination with above mentioned factors increase the challenges to properly process the materials at the end of their life cycle.
The focus is to build-up a standard for whatever alternative product is being used — whether glass, steel, plastic, or other alternative. We’re not aiming to buildup the recycling for single-use plastics — those are eliminated in the near future with activities that occur in the design phase. The goal is to be smart about plastics that are produced, used, and reused at the end of their lifecycle. Even for something like shoes, car parts, electronics — the more standards exist the easier to capture, blend, and recycle or repurpose.
After properly sorting from post-consumer use, one of the biggest challenges for recycling is that the amount/type of dye, chemicals, stickers, labels etc. used on each plastic product are different even from the same manufacturer. This “freedom” makes it almost impossible to recycle some items (even if they are #1, 2 or 5) as they contaminate and reduce the quality of the end recycled material. Some of us refer to these as non-recyclable recyclables- although “technically” they are recyclable, given the limitations of the facilities and infrastructure and the final product created during the design and manufacturing of packaging they become non-recyclable.
This is even more of an issue in the developing world when resources, infrastructure and capabilities are already limited. The advanced facilities that are required to handle the recycling process for all the “kinds” of #1s and 2s most of the time don’t even exist in the western developed countries. Creating standards to handle these issues pre-production is one way to quickly transform this challenge.
Standards can be implemented for:
- Types of materials used for “temporary” (non-durable) products
- Amount of recycled content in products by product type
- Types of coloring and dye used
- Types of labels and stickers and their placement
- Ease of separating plastic from other materials in the product
- The type of plastics used in the mix
- The recyclability of a product design
Achieving a standard in these different areas will help reduce the amount of “non-recyclable recyclables.” For example currently, though #1 and #2 plastics are easily recyclable, when black coloring is added — as in carry-out trays — they become non-recyclable, causing a big loss in revenue for sorters and recyclers. Also, the same ubiquitous plastics — when a difficult to remove sticker or label is applied the material becomes non-recyclable in mainstream recycling facilities. These issues become more overwhelming and costly when processed in larger volumes such as in municipal waste collected from the streets of populated cities where “convenience” tends to take precedence.
As our underlying issue is to tackle plastic pollution and waste generation — one standardization technique might be to standardize the availability, material, and durability of single-use items. The standards don’t need to apply to just plastics, but also consider the overall picture — standardize based on intended use — opting for alternatives to plastic for a short-term, temporary application. Plastic originally was intended to be used for long-lasting applications requiring durability. So single-use items made of plastic can readily be “standardized” for use of another more sustainable material.
The above points of standardization can then be applied for long-term products. For instance, it is possible for an industry wide standard in the automotive industry to use at least 75% recycled plastic in interior parts, and a similar standard to use recycled plastic in toys, electronics, and outdoor furniture. This will help increase the market for recycled materials as well as incentivize the return/collection of the product at the end of its life-cycle. At this day and age the argument that high quality recycled materials don’t exist no longer applies. It is purely a question of scalability and economics.
In Europe there are existing standards which help achieve their high recycling rate. What is received at the sorting/recycling centers is not always a “mystery” or surprise. Manufacturers are held accountable to make sure that their products meet certain standards — including recycled content — and that they are even collectable, which then lends itself to consumers easily sorting the products (by color or shape)— and this approach leads to standardization in design.
There is much room for opportunity for standardization in the use, application and processing for plastics.
What are your thoughts on standardizing plastics — either by product, industry, or post-consumer collection/processing?
Thank you for reading! I hope that you gained some insight from this article. Please like, clap, and/or comment! :) What other topics would you like to see covered?
Next is — Invest in Local Recycling Infrastructures Globally