February 24, 2020

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#DesignIntent: Decoding the Recycling & Recyclability Soup

Understanding the practical capabilities of the recycling infrastructure is an important component of Designing with Intent.


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

Thank you to everyone who participated in our #DesignIntent Twitter chat on February 25th. I appreciated the opportunity and it was fantastic to see so many people engaged and taking active interest in improved sustainability. We received a lot of great questions so here's a little more insight into the #DesignIntent concept and some context for some of the questions answered during the chat.

Design with Intent

First, a quick overview. The concept of Design with Intent is an approach to product design that takes practical recyclability of products into consideration in the design phase. This helps ensure that valuable resources are recoverable after a product’s initial use by being mindful of material selection, ease of recyclability or disassembly by the consumer, all the while staying within the recycling infrastructure’s capabilities.

Every time I go a store, I’m struck by how many examples of products and packaging I see that are virtually impossible to recycle because of choices made in the design process. While it’s heartening to see sustainable productssome companies trying to do the right thing and use the right materials, there seems to be a lack of consideration of the entire journey that an item must take to be effectively captured and recycled.

Not only does the product designer need to select a recyclable material, but the product design must also make it easy for consumers to recycle it in their curbside recycling bin where possible, recyclers must be able to collect and sort the item, and material processors must be able to reintroduce it as a new product.

Taking into consideration all these phases of the recycling process is Designing with Intent.

Material Selection: Only the Beginning

We often speak with designers who operate under the assumption that if they use a recyclable material, that an item will be recyclable. This is not always the case, and this is where Design with Intent can help.

Plastics tend to be the most misunderstood material in terms of recycling. Consumers and designers often confuse a plastic product’s Resin Identification Code (RIC) with an indication of recyclability (the RIC is the little number 1-7 surrounded by the chasing arrows symbol that you find on a great deal of plastic products). The RIC only indicates what resin type the product or package is made of and is not an indication of recyclability, which can be confusing to consumers and designers alike.

Another important factor to consider is that, even though a material might be acceptable in your curbside recycling program, it does not mean that the material will get recycled. To a great degree, recyclability hinges upon the existence of markets for the material once it’s been collected and sorted.

So even if your curbside recycling program accepts #6 Polystyrene (PS) plastics, it doesn’t mean that there are vendors #Designintent - Hosted by CSRwirethat will buy the material on the back end and process it into new polystyrene once it’s been collected and sorted. If there is no market, the material will likely not be recycled.

Sometimes color effects marketability as well. While water bottles are made of a highly-recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (#1 PET plastic), there is little marketable value for #1 PET that is any other color than clear, or translucent green, brown or blue. When taking these considerations into account during design, project designers can eliminate these issues upstream and make recycling easier.

Make it Easy

Designing with Intent should also take the ease of recyclability into consideration during the design phase. Making it easy to recycle something helps empower the consumer to recycle correctly and effectively. When possible, using multiple material types in one product should be avoided. Where using multiple material types is unavoidable though, the different materials should be easy to disassemble.

For example, traditional shampoo bottles often require two different plastic types to meet performance standards: one plastic to make the bottle squeezable, one plastic to make the cap stable and rigid. To make it easier to get every last drop of shampoo out of the bottle, the design of the cap evolved so that, in some brands, it’s the same width and depth of the bottle, making the bottle more stable when stored upside-down. While a great design from a functional perspective, these new caps are often difficult or impossible for the consumer to separate from the bottle, which poses a problem for recycling.

Taking this a step deeper, let’s say the bottle is made of high density polyethylene (#2 HDPE), the same plastic type as a milk jug, but the cap is made from rigid #6 PS. The #2 HDPE is a high-value material and most recycling facilities collect and sell it, while the #6 PS has limited market value. If the #6 PS cap cannot be separated, the bottle as a whole would be considered a contaminant in either the #2 HDPE or #6 PS stream, reducing the overall value of any material it would be mixed with. If there is no value, the product will likely be sent to landfill.

#Designintent - Hosted by CSRwire

Using a Design with Intent approach, designing the two components of the shampoo bottle to be made of the same material or made easy to separate would greatly improve the value of the material and increase the likelihood recycling.

Understanding the Recycling Infrastructure

Another component of Designing with Intent is understanding the practical capabilities of the recycling infrastructure. Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) are complex operations that utilize a combination of manual and automated sorting to process the material they receive. Unlike the recycling centers of the past, the modern single stream facility is a highly technical system that sorts hundreds of thousands of tons of material yearly. Designing products without considering recycling infrastructure capabilities can lead to unrecyclable products.

A good example of this is flexible plastic film packaging.

#Designintent - Hosted by CSRwire

We see more and more food products, such as cereals, dried fruits and nuts, coffee and more, switching from boxes or cans to flexible packages. While these packages have significant benefits related to reduced environmental footprint, they are extremely difficult to capture and recycle at a MRF. Plastic film can actually be detrimental to a MRF because it can get caught in the conveyors and cause mechanical problems.

This issue, combined with the fact that flexible packaging is often comprised of multiple plastic types and has virtually no value on the market, makes these items effectively unrecyclable. So we’ve replaced recyclable cereal boxes and peanut jars with unrecyclable plastic film, and that plastic film is headed to the landfill. 

#Designintent - Hosted by CSRwire

Thoughtful design with intent can help address all of the issues discussed in this blog post. We understand that sometimes a product needs to utilize certain materials or configurations to meet specifications or performance requirements, but taking the factors we’ve just discussed into consideration and being conscious about design will help keep valuable materials in the supply chain, reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill and promote sustainability through product design.

Next, I’ll share some insights on a few products that are getting it right and doing more to Design with Intent.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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