HOW SUSTAINABILITY COMPLETES THE DESIGN PROCESS
Sustainability has always been a key factor in the design of plastic packaging and new techniques now ensure that it is even more at the heart of the process, says Brian Lodge, RPC’s design manager.
From motor oil paints, fabric softeners to turf feed, rigid plastic packaging has long been recognized as the most suitable packaging solution for a wide variety of non-food markets. Everyone has benefited from the convenience, strength, light weight and functionality that a well-designed package can offer. Nonetheless, recent press campaigns against the use of plastics have brought to a wider audience an issue that the industry has been grappling with for many years – that of the design and manufacture of packaging that continues to offer these many benefits without costing the earth.
Ironically, one of the many criticisms currently leveled against plastics – the myriad of different polymers available – remains a key reason why plastic is able to meet the different packaging requirements of so many different products. Most importantly, the judicious use of the available polymers remains the key to creating a sustainable and affordable packaging system (both in terms of cost and environmental impact).
To achieve this, the starting point must be the need for a broader understanding of the issues involved, and this can be achieved in several ways. At RPC Design, for example, our recent activities have included a tour of a plastics recycling facility and participation in a seminar in the House of Lords, as well as a longer-term project involving the Ellen McArthur Foundation to develop circular design tools for designers. .
This is certainly the future of packaging design, to which must now be added the traditional parameters of form, function and cost, the “circularity” of packaging as an equally important aspect. This is something that RPC has already started to implement, changing our design process to include self-developed tools and also adapting our use of software and facilities to ensure that we create great packaging that meets all of these requirements.
The approaches of the three Rs – “reduce, reuse, recycle” – of the circular economy are very different. To “reduce”, we test our designs using FEA (Finite Element Analysis) software as well as things like mold flow. This allows us to minimize the amount of material we use to create the force needed to function properly.
Again, this is not a new concept. Packaging designers and manufacturers have long worked on weight reduction techniques, for commercial and environmental reasons. Four years ago, for example, RPC introduced the world’s first self-contained five-liter jerrycan approved by the UN for the transport of dangerous goods, weighing just 130g, compared to around 200g for more typical examples. More recently, we have redesigned a very complex packaging for the horticultural sector, reducing the number of components in the packaging by more than 50 percent for an overall weight reduction of 40 percent.
These two examples highlight the crucial relationship between functionality and durability. Above all, a pack must remain fit for purpose – if it cannot fulfill its primary purpose, any environmental benefit is worthless.
For this reason, “reuse” can be trickier for many industrial applications where the original contents of the container prevent it or the need for tamper-evident seals (essential for many products and often required by law) makes reuse. hard. However, there are many examples of jars with pens and jars containing screws or nails in commercial and domestic life.
For many plastic packaging designs the primary focus remains “recycling” and here designers can have a very big impact by creating packaging that is fully recyclable and can incorporate post-consumer recycled material. The use of single-material packaging made of PET, PP or HDPE is the first objective, and if this is difficult, it is important to make the components easily separable. Like weight reduction, the incorporation of PCR requires a great deal of technical skill to ensure that the performance and functionality of the package is in no way compromised, and there are many cases where this has been successfully achieved, such than paint containers with 25 percent PCR, and oil bottles and test jars that are 100 percent PCR.
At RPC, we have also developed two bespoke tools to facilitate the design-for-recycling process. The first is our ‘Circular Economy Checksheet’, which asks questions for each step of the design process. This requires each designer to question the brief, the concepts generated and the final design with a set of questions that ensure that we have explored all possibilities to make the pack suitable for CE.
By far the most effective tool has been our recent introduction of a circular filing system that assesses every design concept against Recyclas’ recyclability system. We add to our presentations a pictogram similar to the energy efficiency pictogram used on electrical appliances or double-glazed windows. Each design is rated from A to F and the colored bar graph quickly shows the effect of design decisions on its recyclability. We also incorporate symbols to indicate whether it is lightweight, reusable, or made from PCR materials.
Designing for the circular economy does not mean having to throw away all the advantages that well-designed plastic packaging already offers. By applying the right skills and knowledge and using the right tools, it is possible to create packaging that meets the needs of consumers, fillers, brand owners and recyclers without compromise. And that must be the best way to achieve the more sustainable world that everyone is looking for.