How plastic recycling is creating new product innovation

Ellen Macarthur Foundation

Almost every day, there is news of a new anti-plastic initiative and many single use products are being replaced or redesigned in an effort to make them greener. More bottles and packaging in general are now suitable for plastic recycling, but there is speculation that we may be moving beyond plastic.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s systemic initiatives lead, Rob Opsomer, better design could enable 50 per cent of plastic packaging to be suitable for plastic recycling and reuse schemes could account for a further 20 per cent. This would leave around 30 per cent of plastic packaging requiring a rethink to avoid it ending up as landfill.

Alternatives to traditional plastics are being explored by various experts, including Jeffrey Catchmark from Penn State University, who is looking at the suitability of natural polymers. So far, they have created waterproof coverings made from the shells of crustaceans and cellulose. These have the advantage of being compostable and they offer extra benefits such as acting as adhesives.

An Israel-based company, Tipa, has also developed a compostable flexible packaging material, made from a combination of synthetic and biological materials. This is admittedly more expensive than conventional plastic, but since it breaks down quickly in a home composter, it could be a preferable alternative to the film that is currently used for packaging tomatoes and similar products.

Improvements in product design in many items including juice cartons, coffee cups and drinks packaging are proliferating. Recyclable coffee cups are now available from Frugalpac, and any UK paper mill can recycle these, since the waterproof plastic layer easily floats away from the paper cup and can be removed. Another recent innovation is the Triocup, which is a paper coffee cup that has been designed with a top that folds over, removing the need for a separate plastic lid.

Some packaging solutions are now being designed to be eaten. Evoware, based in Jakarta, say that the seasoning sachets for their instant noodles will break down in hot water, so there is nothing to discard. Seaweed is a promising packaging material that could be used as an alternative to conventional wrappers and sachets. It has even been used for water by Skipping Rocks Lab, a London-based start-up that has developed squidgy balls that are filled with liquid known as Ooho. These last for a number of days and can be eaten.

The US Department of Agriculture is also producing edible packaging using milk proteins to make films. They claim that these are more effective than plastic at excluding oxygen from the products they package.

The replacement of plastic water bottles by many venues has also reduced the amount of plastic ending up in landfill. One example is London Zoo, where plastic bottles have been replaced by aluminium cans that are easier to recycle. They are also made from largely recycled material and can be repeatedly recycled, unlike plastics which are generally downgraded when they are recycled and cannot be used for the same product.

90 per cent of the packaging used by M&S is currently recyclable, but the firm is researching different types of the black plastic used for ready meals, because this usually ends up in landfill as the dyes it contains mean it is unsuitable for most recycling facilities.

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