September 18, 2014

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#DesignIntent: From the Think Chair to the Humble Egg Carton, Paving the Way for the Next Frontier for Product Design

Waste Management's Tom Carpenter wraps up his responses to questions from #DesignIntent.

Tom_carpenter_wm

By Tom Carpenter, Executive Director of Waste Management’s Sustainability Services
@CarpenterWMSS

The desire to create circular economies or closed-loop systems has never been as popular as today. But when you’re talking sustainability, products and packaging that are designed to fit that bill often fall short when it comes to recyclability.

That's because sustainable packaging needs to go beyond reducing the volume of materials used to package an item and increasing recycled content for those materials, because while improved design has helped packaging be more efficient, it doesn’t always mean it can be recovered (take the egg carton example below).

In fact, product shipment life cycles tell us new packaging designs can increase product shelf life, improve logistics by circumventing voids in packing space and reducing package weight. The practice of Design with Intent takes these efficiencies one step further by assuring each package can be recovered to re-enter the supply chain.

Design with Intent is also a broad upstream and downstream approach to life cycle WM-DesignwithIntentthinking. It asks questions about next use, ease of recoverability and opportunities for positive impacts on supply chains through raw material reductions.

No Easy Solution for Every Material

Most well-meaning recyclers are not aware that every material or discard does not have an easy solution. Take, for instance, consumer packaged products.

These products represent an almost infinite number of material choices, shapes and sizes. When these products are consumed, the discards can be collected through multiple outlets. In effect, every recycling household and business becomes a separate generation point, making the materials more difficult to be recycled or composted.

The recycling industry has evolved to try to recover these materials as efficiently as possible in terms of transportation, handling and, ultimately, reuse. Sophisticated recycling processes were developed to sort valuable materials from trash. Smaller collection drives or mail-back programs emerged to deal with concerns about toxins or safety requirements. These networks of recycling programs have worked well, but as time has gone by it is apparent there is considerable room for improvement.

Knowing this makes the Design with Intent concept a valuable one. It becomes clear that a complete and thorough life cycle approach is needed. Manufacturers need to match their solid understanding of the beginning half of a product’s life cycle with an understanding of how to enhance the sustainability of the back half of the life cycle – what happens after the product is used and thrown away.

The fact is in order to recover materials in that back half of the life cycle, designers must take into consideration three basic tenets:

  1. Consumer behavior,
  2. The recycling infrastructure that will need to process the discarded products,
  3. The commodity markets for the recycled product or packaging materials.

This is not simply theory. There are many leading companies employing the concepts of Design for Recyclability (DfR)], while several others have reached out to us for assistance as they begin the process of Designing with Intent. Here are a few examples of sustainable packaging and Design with Intent and DfR considerations.

Q: How do you improve on sustainable packaging?

A: @PepsiCo is the proud owner of many brands and one of them, @nakedjuice originally had many sustainable packaging attributes. It was produced using a highly recyclable plastic, known as #2 HDPE. The design has a square shape, which creates efficiency in transportation due to its compactability. The company’s redesign, or Design with Intent journey, began several years ago when they designed a bottle that could close a loop, so to speak.

That is, the new rPET (recyclable polyethylene terephthalate) bottle not only had the same efficient shape but could also be recycled again and again into new juice bottles. (The use of recycled rPET in the supply chain helps use 60 percent less energy and 90 percent less water, than traditional materials not to mention the reduction in harmful air pollutants.) The evolution of the bottle goes to show that continual improvement in sustainable packaging is possible andSteelcase-Think-chair Design with Intent is a sound practice.

Q: How do you improve products that are already sustainable?

A: @Steelcase offers a comprehensive suite of office furniture products, with the company fully embracing concepts of Cradle-to- Cradle and Design with Intent through the years, even eliminating packaging waste in many cases by shipping products directly to large volume customers without the use of packaging altogether.

One of the more innovative and sustainable products in the Steelcase portfolio is the Think chair. They started at the design phase to consider the materials that would go into the production of a sustainable office chair. The chair received the Cradle to Cradleproduct certification and many other notable sustainability certifications. Its most remarkable design feature is the consideration for recycling.

The chair is 98 percent recyclable by weight, contains 38 percent recycled content and can be disassembled in five minutes. While the recycled material cannot be recycled curbside in standard programs, the components bridge the first gap of being easily separated into valuable materials. With the right collection opportunity, the chair can be recycled over and over again.

What is most inspiring is the dedication and life cycle thinking that it took to rethink the office chair. To quote Steelcase directly: “In developing the Think chair, we considered where it comes from, how it is made, and what it will be when it is no longer a chair.”

That is Design with Intent at the very core.

The next frontier and challenge is to build on this great innovation: can the components of the office chair be recovered in a common recycling program or another system?

Q: What is an example of an every day package that has been sustainably progressive over time?

One of my favorite case studies, however, involves the redesign evolution of the egg carton. While there has been much debate over the years on material choices and carton design, it’s obvious that, first and foremost, the package must protect the product.

After all, 70-80 percent of the environmental impacts and embodied energy is in the product itself. Secondly, it is important to continually seek ways to improve and innovate as new technologies and recycling infrastructure progresses.

The most common packaging for an egg carton remains the polystyrene (PS) foam. The material has great insulator and protective qualities, but when you add in life cycle impacts – when that packaging is discarded, it cannot be recovered easily. In fact, polystyrene has been the negative target of many green-minded groups and design projects due to its difficulty to recycle. While there are some options, the market for recycled foam is small and the cost of processing is significant.

An alternative chosen by some was to switch to a Molded Paper/Pulp (MP) package. There are similar protection benefits to the MP carton and the added improvement of the ability to use 100 percent recycled content. However, while the carton itself can be added to the recycling stream, the material has little to no value and can contaminate the recycled fiber stream if it is collected in large quantities. Its quality is much lower than the rest of the recycled paper stream.

In addition, some grocers have complained of contamination due to damaged and leaking food waste resulting from packaging breakage. When other containers become saturated, additional food waste is created.

A packaging alternative that is growing in both popularity and use is recycled Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE), which is the most commonly recycled plastic. The cartons are made from post-consumer bottles and can be collected in curbside recycling programs to be made into new containers. The environmental benefit in using recycled PETE content is that it lowers CO2 emissions and energy/water usage. There is also the added benefit of isolating food waste should there be breakage, eliminating the contamination encountered with MP packaging. However, similar to the plastic water bottle, if the consumer does not recycle the container, the material value is lost and it will not break down in a landfill.

No Silver Bullet

It’s plain to see that there is no silver bullet for package designers. Every package or product has the potential for both negative and WM_chatpositive impacts. Proceeding by trial and error takes time—and money. The benefit of the Design with Intent approach is that life cycle thinking is merged with design strategy.

Taking a big step back and asking questions as, What is the purpose of the product? How and what materials will be sourced? How will the package be used and recovered? What will be the next use of the materials?, will likely be the new approach in improved design.

The thought of the ‘next use’ is an exciting one for those of us focused on packaging design. There is great innovation in the world of packaging and as uses, markets and designs for recycled material continue to grow, so too does the value of the materials commonly thrown away.

Once we all realize that there truly is no “away” and that there is secondary value in what we discard, the ability to Reimagine Waste as resources, time and money exists.

Related:

#DesignIntent: Decoding the Recycling & Recyclability Soup

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