DESIGN FOR RECYCLING
When packaging reaches the end of its life, it is preferable – from an environmental perspective – to reuse the resources invested during its production for maximum benefit and not simply dispose of the packaging.
Design for recycling aims at facilitating the recovery of the packaging materials for additional use. Among other environmental benefits such as reducing the consumption of fossil resources, this makes a significant contribution towards lowering the release of greenhouse gas emissions, which are responsible for climate change.
If a remaining part of packaging cannot be recycled in the existing conditions of the recycling infrastructure, the energy (calorific value) included in this should at least be recovered for heating or other energy supply.
One prerequisite for effective plastic packaging recycling is the existence of a well-established waste collection and recycling infrastructure with sorting of plastic packaging for subsequent appropriate treatment. However, “recycling-ready” packaging designs may stimulate investment in the collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure even in countries where such infrastructure is still lacking today.
A policy framework has been established in the European Union that aims to ensure the proper implementation of such waste collection and treatment infrastructures supporting the ultimate goal of a circular economy that “closes the loops” of product and material life cycles and covers packaging as well as all products.
Design for recycling allows existing potential to be exploited in order to increase recycling rates and close loops.
Supporting material recycling through design for recycling is the preferred Eco Design approach in all regions with well-established collection, sorting and recycling infrastructures for packaging waste. This approach may be also be taken to mark packaging as recycling-ready for the future.
At the system level, this means that if there are no or insufficient collection, sorting and recycling infrastructures and schemes already in place, they need to be implemented to ensure collection of the packaging for separation, followed by specific sorting and recycling steps. Additional incentives for the consumer such as take-back systems or deposit systems may support such efforts with increased return rates.
At the packaging level, it is a question of designing the packaging so that it is:
- Collectable by consumers – meaning it is clearly identifiable as plastic packaging by the consumer
- Detectable by sorting plants – meaning it ends up in the sorting fraction designated for recycling
- Recyclable by state-of-the-art recycling technologies – so that secondary materials can be produced according to market requirements.
Energy recovery should remain a last resort in order to recover the feedstock energy invested in the packaging to some extent if it is not (yet) possible for all packaging components to be fully recycled.
At the packaging level, this requires the composition of the packaging material to allow a significant proportion of the feedstock energy to be recovered as electricity, steam or substitute fuel. It also means avoiding substances that result in extra effort needing to be invested in cleaning exhaust gases, thus reducing the efficiency of energy utilisation.
Implementing these requirements does not conflict with the overarching aim of recyclability – they are also in line with the overall aim of stimulating material recycling.