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Can better-designed and sustainable plastic packaging aid in the Recycling of Packaging Waste? 

Plastic Waste

Can better-designed and sustainable plastic packaging aid in the Recycling of Packaging Waste? 

17 Aug, 2023
Recycling of Packaging Waste

Plastic packaging provides a variety of benefits for the manufacturer as well as the user. They are versatile, easy to use, provide exceptional protection to the product from spoilage and degradation, increase shelf life and, most importantly, cheap. With limited alternatives in the market that can check all the above boxes, the packaging options available for products like FMCG, cosmetic products, food packaging, and pharmaceuticals sectors remain limited. Brand owners in these sectors must fulfil their Extended Producers Responsibility obligations under the Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2022. The rules require PIBOs to meet the annual EPR target and reuse recycled plastic from 2024 0nwards. But one might wonder why, despite these rules, the plastic waste recycling ratio is so low for India. Let’s try to understand the bottlenecks in plastic waste management in the country and how simple tweaks in the design process can help tackle this issue. 

Common Issues Related to Conventional Plastic Packaging 

There are standard stages in plastic waste recycling, collection, segregation, cleaning, shredding, cleaning, extrusion, and finally, remoulding it into desired product promoting recycling. However, in many cases, packaging that can be recycled does not get recycled due to certain factors involved. Well-known non-recyclable plastics packaging includes blister/ bubble packaging, plastic-coated wrapping paper, cling film composite plastic, bioplastics, and polycarbonate. Thermoset plastics contain polymers that are created with irreversible chemical bonds. 

A sustainable alternative to plastic packaging must create a secure container for the product while being aesthetically pleasing to the customer. The most pressing challenges for the brand owner include ensuring that the packaging material is: 

  • Sustainability 
  • Product protection 
  • Recognition 
  • Distribution 
  • Freshness 
  • Impressions 
  • E-commerce 
  • Rising costs 

Challenges of the Recycling Sector 

The following table shows the recyclability of plastic categories commonly used today. 

Plastic category Type Uses 
♳  (Recyclable) PET or PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate) Commonly used to make bottles for packaging water, soda, oil containers, and jars for other food. 
♴  (Recyclable) HDPE (High-density polyethylene)  Used to make shampoo bottles, milk jugs, cleaning product containers and detergent bottles. 
♵  (Non- Recyclable) PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) Used to make household products. Plastic tubing, plastic trays,  kids’ toys and furniture are often made out of PVC. 
♶ (Non-Recyclable) LDPE (Low-density polyethylene) used to make grocery bags and bags that hold bread loaves and fresh produce, among other things. 
♷ (Recyclable) PP (Polypropylene)  Used to make straws, rope, carpet and bottle caps. 
♸ (Non-Recyclable) 6-PS (Polystyrene) Used to make disposable coffee cups, packing for food items, coolers and to-go food containers. 
♹ (Non-Recyclable) Other  Products stamped with a seven are often made of multiple types of plastic or other types that can’t easily be recycled. 

The following are some of the significant challenges faced by plastic recyclers today. 

Lack of Plastic Waste Recycling Capacity

India generates around 3.4 million tonnes (MT) of plastic waste, and only 30 per cent of it is recycled.  As per OECD, plastic pollution is growing relentlessly as waste management and recycling stats fall short of targets for India consistently. Data from registered entities on plastic waste recycling shows that the percentage of uncollected and mismanaged plastic litter stands at 46%, landfilled plastic waste is 36%, incinerated waste is 4 %, and only 13% is getting recycled.  

Cost of recycling for specific categories of plastic

One of the issues for the lower percentage is the cost involved in recycling. PET, followed by HDPE, are preferred by recyclers, and there is a strong market for their by-product, But the other five categories of more rigid plastics (category 3 to 7) have a tiny market since the value of the reprocessed material is lower, and they cannot make larger margins.  

Market Competition

Brands compete to stand out as attractive, distinct, and memorable. It can therefore be difficult to justify simplifying or standardising their products. The head of the brand is likely to care about aesthetics, perhaps even including the weight and ‘feel’ of the final product. Departments within a brand may have conflicting KPIs, competing regarding sustainability, brand features, logistics, product protection and costs. 

Sustainable Plastic Packaging 

Sustainability in plastic packaging can be achieved by simple innovations in the composition, design, and amount of packaging used. A sustainable packaging design means designing packaging based on one or more of the following: 

  • Ease of recyclability 
  • Resource efficiency 
  • Inclusion of recycled content 
  • Reuse 
  • Environmentally beneficial consumer behaviour  

Therefore, at the stage of designing packaging, brand owners, product designers and recyclers[1] must work together on the above-mentioned factors and figure out answers to questions such as  

  1. Can the consumer recognise the packaging (or product) as recyclable? 
  2. Is the packaging (or product) widely collected for recycling? 
  3. Is the packaging (or product) capable of being sorted? 
  4. Is the packaging (or product) capable of being made into something new? 

How manufacturers add sustainability in plastic packaging 

Companies should design products that contain alternative materials with a lesser footprint and are easy to process. Products for which plastic-only material must be designed for reuse or use polymers that are easy to recycle 

Recycling and reuse of Plastic Packaging 

A straightforward approach to reducing the plastic waste crisis is designing reusable packaging that consumers can use for extended periods. When we talk about sustainability in packaging, packaging designed for single use the purpose means that it is less likely to be collected by our informal waste collectors, which still perform a majority of the collection. 

Limiting the use of multi-layered plastic 

Products using multi-layered plastic are preferred for many products nowadays as it provides a greater shelf life for some perishable products or sometimes makes the product stand out from the competitors. But the main problem is that their multi-layered composition is lined with foil, making it very expensive to separate into recyclable parts. Flexible packaging is also often “super-contaminated” with food waste. So cleaning such waste is also tricky. 

Reducing Overpackaging 

Reducing over-packaging in plastic packaging can be achieved by choosing products that have minimal packaging or those that use eco-friendly alternatives to plastic, such as biodegradable or compostable materials. Supporting bulk purchases, i.e. buying products in bulk or choosing larger sizes to reduce the overall amount of packaging waste generated. Also, avoiding individually wrapped items whenever possible can significantly reduce the plastic waste generated. 

Finding an alternative to easily replaceable packaging: 

The lightweight packets containing fresh food and snacks, like chips or chocolate bars, constitute around 40% of plastic packaging waste. These are contaminated easily and are difficult to collect or recycle. PIBOs can prioritise using recycled or recyclable plastic packaging or consider packaging made from alternative materials like paper or cardboard, and bio-degradable plastic can significantly reduce single-use plastic waste. 

Methods to Tackle Plastic Waste through better designing  

The buck should not stop with the government, as the consumers and the manufacturers are also key in recycling. Many industries are now searching for innovative approaches based on the following approaches. 

Material Selection 

Choosing recyclable materials for packaging is fundamental to its efficient recycling. Designers should prioritise materials like cardboard, paper, glass, and certain types of plastic that recycling facilities widely accept. The recycling process becomes more streamlined by avoiding complex multi-layered packaging or non-recyclable materials. 

Minimalism and Simplicity 

Simplifying packaging design not only reduces material waste but also facilitates recycling. Employing minimalist design principles, such as using fewer colours, eliminating unnecessary embellishments, and reducing the number of components, ensures the packaging is more easily dismantled and sorted during recycling. 

Standardised Labels and Symbols 

Clear and standardised labelling guides consumers on proper disposal and recycling procedures. Including relevant recycling symbols, such as the chasing arrows symbol or resin identification codes, helps consumers identify recyclable packaging materials and sort them accordingly. Consistent use of these symbols across products fosters public awareness and promotes recycling practices. 

Size and Volume Optimisation 

Optimising packaging size and volume can significantly reduce material consumption and transportation costs while improving recycling efficiency. Designers should strive to minimise excess air or space within the packaging, ensuring a proper fit for the product while reducing the overall material footprint. This also reduces the amount of waste generated during the recycling process. 

Modular and Separable Components 

Designing packaging with separable components simplifies the recycling process. Recycling facilities can efficiently process and recycle each component individually by allowing easy separation of different materials, such as separating plastic caps from glass bottles or cardboard inserts from plastic containers. This enhances material recovery rates and reduces contamination. 

Incorporating Recycled Content 

Using packaging materials that incorporate recycled content promotes a circular economy. Designers should explore options to integrate recycled materials into packaging, reducing the demand for virgin resources and encouraging using recycled materials. This demonstrates sustainability and supports the development of recycling markets. 

Collaboration with the Recycling Industry 

Collaboration between packaging designers and the recycling industry is crucial for continuous improvement. Designers can gain insights into current recycling capabilities and limitations by working closely with recycling facility operators and waste management experts. This knowledge can inform packaging design decisions, ensuring designs align with existing recycling infrastructure and processes. 

Conclusion 

Efficient recycling of packaging waste is a collaborative effort requiring proactive engagement from designers, manufacturers, consumers, and recycling facilities. By prioritising recyclable materials, embracing minimalist design principles, and optimising packaging size and volume, we can reduce waste, conserve resources, and promote a circular economy. Through thoughtful and sustainable packaging design, we can pave the way for a more efficient and environmentally responsible approach to recycling. Integrating the 3 R, i.e. Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, in our packaging industry can solve India’s piling waste issue. Recycling can become more lucrative and profitable if manufacturers of plastic commodities observe such simple yet innovative changes. We are on a long journey towards achieving sustainability and responsible consumption. Even a slight change in product packaging design can bring a real difference.  

FAQs

Is recycled plastic packaging sustainable? 

Plastic is a versatile material which has many benefits in regard to helping us live a healthy, clean and efficient lifestyle. Recycling plastics can make a considerable difference, and consumers must understand the positive effect of recycling on the environmental and economic front. Are recycled plastics sustainable?

How recycling is a better option for plastic waste management? 

Consumers of plastic products have the opportunity to make a difference, and corporations and brand owners can lead the charge. 

Why is recycling the best waste management? 

Plastic can cause land and water pollution in the environment. These effects can put human and the environment in risk. Also, if we do not manage plastic responsibly , making new ones can be a waste of precious resources. It is reasonable to reprocess and reuse plastic to prevent waste. 

Is recycling the best option to solve the plastic problem? 

Plastic recycling helps reduce the carbon footprint of a country. A 2018 study commissioned by the APR shows how recycling plastics can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption.  

What packaging is suitable for recycling? 

The most common packaging materials that can be recycled are paper, plastic, glass, wood, and metal. 

What packaging is environmentally friendly?

Plastic is a versatile material which has afforded us many benefits in regard to helping us live a clean, healthy and efficient lifestyle. However, a plastic parts lifecycle doesn’t end when put in the garbage can or recycling bin. The act of recycling plastics can make a considerable difference, and it is crucial for consumers to understand the positive effect of recycling on the environmental and economic front. Consumers of plastic products have the opportunity to make a difference, and corporations and brand owners can lead the charge. 

What are the benefits of recycling plastic packaging? 

Recycling plastic is a good alternative that helps reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Recycling also reduces the possibility of water/soil contamination through plastic waste. 

What are the benefits of recycling plastic wrappers? 

Recycling wrappers help minimise environmental impact by allowing the materials to be processed and reused. It’s a key aspect of sustainable business practices, reducing waste and promoting a circular economy. 

Read our Article:Starting a Plastic Waste Recycling Business

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