How to ensure a switch to sustainable materials is sustainable

Anu Solanki Catherine Hildersley

By Anu Solanki, Richard Claridge, Catherine Hildersley

Recyclable packaging. Compostable plastics. Biopolymers. Many companies are trying to incorporate such innovative sustainable materials into their products, spurred on by initiatives such as the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and UN Sustainable Development Goals, their own environmental objectives and changing consumer behaviours.

We’re helping such forward-thinking companies develop sustainable products and packaging at our Global Innovation and Technology Centre. But moving to sustainable materials isn’t a trivial task. There are scientific and engineering challenges, regulatory hurdles and a need to benchmark the green credentials of different materials. And organisations need to do all this without increasing cost or reducing performance.

So, when we help organisations switch to sustainable materials, we start by focusing on four factors:

1. Understand the specification

Currently, many product and packaging materials are over-engineered. Mapping requirements, such as whether it’s used multiple times or if parts must be disposed of in a specific way, makes it possible to design the minimum viable product and choose the right materials.

Plastic straws are a great example – where the requirement is for a disposable item, paper has replaced plastic, and where consumers are willing to take personal responsibility, there are now metal reusable straws. Our work in medical devices shows another example – autoinjectors require multiple materials (a metal needle, plastic casing, metal springs etc.), so we’ve explored how to make recyclable components that are easy to separate from the medical waste.

So, consider product and packaging design together in the early stages of product development, rather than treating them as two separate items that come together later. This process may be challenging but it has the potential to highlight new material and design options.

2. Examine material production

When there’s a choice of materials that meet the product specification, examine the ecological impact of creating them. For example, is it better to use fossil-based plastics that go to landfill or a biodegradable plant-based alternative that takes a lot of water to grow?

The use of sustainable materials is currently a differentiating factor for many packaging materials. Understanding the resources used will help develop a truly environmentally friendly solution and futureproof against the time when consumer perception changes or all materials have an eco-claim.

So, look at areas like the energy it takes to extract the raw materials, the chemicals used to make the raw materials useful and the carbon footprint of putting it all together. Applying this thought process has led to innovations such as cleaning products that you add water to at home, dramatically reducing the amount of packaging.

3. Explore process changes

If the switch to a new material is going to be truly sustainable, look at the end-to-end process. There could be some quick wins to reduce environmental impact, such as removing inefficiencies in manufacturing and distribution processes. And as these changes would increase efficiency, they also come with a financial gain.

Should you be shipping a sustainable material half way around the world for final production? Would your own ‘reverse supply chain’ be an efficient way to reclaim materials? Streamlining the supply chain is always good for cost and energy use. And it could create opportunities to interact with customers or offer more customised products with higher margins.

4. Consider the disposal

Understanding how to sustainably dispose of any new material is vital, especially as it’s likely to vary in different regions. Bioplastics are a good example. Although they come from more renewable sources, they’re difficult to separate from traditional plastics and contaminate recycling streams. And as they’re relatively new, we don’t know how they degrade in different conditions, so could pollute certain environments.

Don’t forget to look at the waste management infrastructure as well. Single-use coffee cups are, in theory, recyclable. But there isn’t the infrastructure to handle the volume of waste. Just because a material is recyclable or compostable doesn’t mean there are places ready and waiting to process it. Infrastructure can be developed, but responsibility could fall on the manufacturer – recent consumer pressure forced Walkers to collect crisp packets for recycling, for example.

By taking the disposal infrastructure into account, it’s possible to find truly sustainable materials. For example, P&G’s new packaging for their Gillette disposable razors is made from thermoformed pulp trays that traditional infrastructure already processes.

Sustainable materials are crucial but aren’t simple

Switching to sustainable materials can make a major difference to the world and your organisation. But doing so is almost never as simple as just changing the polymer. You must consider the through-life environmental impact of creating, shaping, using and disposing of the material. Only by considering all this can we create commercially viable products and processes that reduce environmental impact.

About the authors

Anu Solanki
Anu Solanki PA technology expert
Richard Claridge PA applied physics expert Richard is an applied physicist based at our Global Innovation and Technology Centre in Cambridge. Richard uses a broad physics base to identify and accelerate new to world technologies to market by applying his scientific understanding to the core technical need.
Catherine Hildersley
Catherine Hildersley PA mechanical engineering expert

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