In the media

Sustainable design: Can we ever live in harmony with plastics?

Ross Lakhdari Iris Alting

By Ross Lakhdari, Iris Alting

Sustainable Plastics

01 February 2024

No longer the wonder material it once was, plastic has since become perceived as a public enemy; an environmental villain that has left footprints in the deepest of oceans to the highest of mountains. It has contaminated our food, harmed biodiversity and disrupted delicate ecosystems. Is its elimination the answer?

Plastics have served a valuable purpose since their inception. The material has revolutionised food preservation, promoted hygiene and ensured product safety and integrity, among other things. It is cheap to make and, with its lightweight composition, easy to transport. Plastics were precisely engineered for versatility and durability. Yet these material traits which have formed such an integral backdrop to the convenience we enjoy in our everyday lives have made plastic, quite literally, indispensable.

Our reliance, immense production, and use of plastic have brought us to a critical juncture where the historical management and treatment of plastic waste are pushing us towards a tipping point. To understand the sheer scale of the problem, consider this: only 9 per cent of all plastic waste has been recaptured and recycled.

Material innovations in bioplastics – from mycelium (mushroom-based) polymers to crustacean-derived plastics – have been explored as possible alternatives to the virgin single-use variants that wrap our chocolates, line our takeaway coffee cups or provide a window to our shop-bought pack of sandwiches. None have, as yet, become a widely accepted, long-term replacement. The cost of production and the energy required to produce the materials at scale are often too hefty or present further issues when considering the end-of-life recovery of waste.

The truth is that it has been difficult to develop a material, economically and at scale, with the same durability and versatility of the plastic in use today. Yet plastic remains a product of outdated systems that consign it to failure right from the onset – at least on the sustainability front. The real challenge, therefore, is designing for a sustainable future with plastic. Our collective approach to plastic, from its creation and use in both product and packaging design, right through to end of life, must be completely reimagined for a circular economy to be viable. This means rethinking the components of plastic, how it is made, its application, its interactivity, its reusability, and eventual disposal.

Change is on the horizon

Global pressures from legislation are increasingly working to control the production and use of single-use plastics in everything from blister packs, from which we dispense our medicine, to the condiment sachets that accompany our fast food. With the policy landscape ever-evolving, businesses are compelled to change via the imposition of bans and stricter controls that treat plastic as if it were a regulated substance. We’re not just seeing this in obvious sectors such as the food and drink industry but in cosmetics, beauty and health where microplastics – now due to be banned in the EU in phases over the coming years – were once heavily used in facial creams and toothpaste. Then there are other EU initiatives, such as increasing the percentage of recycled content used in packaging and imposing a tax on plastic packaging components containing less than 30 per cent recycled content.

Whilst there are inherent disparities across global territories regarding how plastic waste is collected, sorted and reprocessed, these regulatory drivers are radically shaping how businesses are producing and putting out packaging and products onto the market. Where there is so much plastic present in our world, there is huge potential for recycling, if we’re able to address the systems and infrastructure to meaningfully facilitate a shift. This becomes all the more apparent when we understand how fossil fuels remain intrinsic to the virgin plastic-making process; 4 per cent of the world’s fossil fuel resources are used in plastic production and this figure is set to grow unless we innovate ourselves out of the problem.

There are practical barriers to progression that designers, engineers, scientists, policymakers et al. must navigate, but there are behavioural issues too. Current efforts to nudge and guide consumers to sustainably dispose of the waste they generate don’t universally resonate.

Whilst consumers largely agree that they have a part to play in making sustainability work, pontification, fear-mongering and lecturing can divide and deter. Meanwhile, consumer-facing education programmes on recycling remain confusing and rely heavily on the consumer to proactively dismantle product and packaging to its elements and dispose of it in such a way that it complies with nuanced recycling streams.

Complex and abstract sustainability concepts must be humanised to galvanise action. Through effective product and packaging design, we can encourage positive behavioural rituals that reinforce impactful change and ensure people invest in the bigger picture of our future. Economic instability and busy lifestyles will almost certainly see people select convenient options over more sustainable choices. Therefore, the question isn’t really about the quantity of consumers who care enough about sustainability to change their behaviour, but about engineering better systems that allow sustainable behaviours to be seamlessly adopted into our day-to-day lives.

Visualising a harmonious future with plastic

Plastic continues to be demonised, but its outright elimination is not the answer. Rather, urgent steps must be taken to ensure the material is designed with sustainability and circularity in mind: to reduce, reuse and recycle. This also means reappraising our attitudes to and perceptions of plastic – perhaps even categorising it as a ‘luxury’ product rather than a cheap disposable one to foster more innovative sustainable approaches to its application.

Of course, such considerations have profound implications on form and design to create positive change that sticks. Many tensions must be reconciled to strike the right balance – from durability and longevity to reparability and aesthetics. The latter is more important than you think because it wields such an influence over consumer behaviour. Current design guidance on sustainable plastics in product and packaging design must learn from previous iterations that haven’t hit the mark. As evidenced by McDonald’s efforts in France to replace its packaging and utensils with reusable plates and cutlery that looked so distinctive that some consumers even took and tried to re-sell them, it’s clear that solutions to plastic must not look so desirable that they fail to be reused – nor should they look so disposable that consumers simply throw them away.

Around 80 per cent of the environmental impact of product and packaging is influenced by the choices made at the design stage (Ellen MacArthur Foundation), so there’s a huge opportunity to spearhead sustainable solutions for plastic and design-out waste right from a product’s inception. Light-weighting, alternatives to plastic and biodegradability come into play here. Likewise, stakeholders could become much more embedded at the design stage to better understand production processes and pre-empt sustainability challenges faced later on in the supply chain and address these accordingly. With this in mind, what does a viable future with plastic look like?

Design to reduce

Bio-based materials, from algae to seaweed plastic, seem like a sensible alternative to single-use plastics, but the challenge has always been to replicate the functionality, capabilities and economic cost of production of plastic to make these truly scalable.

At PA’s Global Innovation and Technology Centre in Cambridge, we have been working with PulPac to develop a low-cost approach to producing sustainable packaging. Dry Molded Fiber (DMF) technology, invented by PulPac, converts renewable plant fibres into sustainable packaging and products. Offering an alternative to single-use plastics, it has the capability to reduce carbon and water footprint, along with offering a sustainable end-of-life to be recaptured and recycled at scale.

However, designing to reduce plastic waste requires more than technological processes and material innovation. Consumers must equally be engaged – through communication on product packs about the materials used and how to dispose of them responsibly – and the wider stakeholder mindset must also be addressed to ensure that regulation, supply chains and recycling infrastructures work symbiotically to achieve sustainability goals.

Design to reuse

When designing for reusability, durability is key, but the success of reusability only works if the consumer is educated, engaged and incentivised to comply. One study showed that a reusable coffee cup or food container needed to be used at least 40 times to offset its environmental impact. Sandwich chain, Pret A Manger, compels their consumers to bring their own cups by giving them a 50p discount, nudging them to act more sustainably through financial incentives. Both physical product and graphic design can be important vessels for information that help consumers make more conscious choices and act in a way that makes reusing habitual and thus a success.

Shifting beyond a packaging focus, brands are actively exploring strategies to create scalable and cost-effective circular solutions, including subscription and take-back programmes, to reclaim unwanted products. The goal is to offer a viable pathway for the product to move into another use-cycle or in some instances be recycled. While industries, like fashion, have been more accustomed to exploring such solutions, others, including toys, consumer electronics, and home furniture, are now starting to delve into similar initiatives.

Design for recyclability

The collective global success of recycling is questionable because the governance and efficacy of recycling systems across territories is disparate – whether this be from country to country or state to state. This makes it logistically hard for international brands to develop packaging that universally complies with regulations. However, programmes such as Deposit Return Schemes are increasingly being integrated in different countries to reduce littering, increase the recycling of single-use drink containers to 90 per cent and provide a secure supply of feedstock to meet recycled content targets.

Designing for recyclability entails the inclusion of features that nudge and empower consumers to recycle responsibly. That means product and packaging should be easy to dismantle and separate, with the packaging itself used to educate and engage consumers about the correct way in which to recycle and dispose of the pack and product concerned.

Whilst much focus has been directed on the necessity for recycling, not enough attention has been paid to designing with end-of-life in mind. This must change. Careful consideration must be paid to features like material composition, sizing, purity and colour – all integral factors to sortation and recycling. For example, Coca Cola recently switched its Sprite bottles from green to clear plastic – a design decision which aimed to improve recyclability – whilst Unilever started using new detectable black pigment for some TRESemme and Lynx bottles, so that they could be detected by waste managers and sorted effectively for recycling.

Emerging technology that seeks to address hard-to-recycle plastics which comprise multi-layer components, as well as improved material-scanning technology, are all being trialled, promising a scalable shift to more effective waste management and recycling practices globally in the near future. For example, CRDC Global has been working to address these systemic challenges we face today, including recycling the most problematic plastics. CRDC's circular business model is focused on recovering landfill and ocean-bound plastic waste and converting it into a low-carbon concrete additive for the construction industry, as a substitute for traditional concrete aggregates which have a high carbon footprint.

What now?

Designing for a future with plastics means thinking about sustainability from a product’s inception through to the end of its life. It means designing out waste, reappraising infrastructure, influencing wider stakeholders’ mindsets and innovating empathetically to promote sustainable consumer habits that affect the bigger picture. Plastic has long been viewed as the environmental problem, but perhaps we need to start seeing it as a symptom, not the cause, of a much bigger problem that can be positively addressed with ingenuity and human-centric design.

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