Recyclability by Design: How Effective Recycling Starts Before a Product is Made.

Reducing Pollution through Smarter Product Development and Packaging

Brands face many different considerations when taking a new product to market or revamping an older brand name. Costs, ease of manufacture, shelf-life, customer appeal and size amongst a myriad of other variables.

Yet, today, as pollution reaches critical levels, recyclability has to be one of the priority considerations. Legislation has been enacted through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations that oblige ‘producers’ to adhere to recyclability guidelines. As importantly, environmental issues have become commonly understood by an increasingly better-informed public to the point where recyclability forms part of the purchase decision-making process.

A shift towards paper-based products or more especially paper-based packaging seems logical but in many ways that can be an overly simplistic response. Paper may be easily recycled, but does it provide adequate shelf-life? Is it durable enough? If for example, it provides packaging for food, will it prevent the food from spoiling for the requisite amount of time? If not, we are simply replacing packaging waste with food waste.

Plastic packaging, which gets bad press, does achieve the hygiene, convenience and durability we might need. And PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) is actually 100% recyclable. The consideration then becomes, how do we make sure that the design of the product and packaging doesn’t lead to contamination of the recyclable product through the addition of extraneous elements?

It is also true that pollution is not only limited to visible litter but also includes microplastics from sources such as tyres and washing clothes. The latter is especially amplified due to so-called “fast fashion” - cheap clothes mass-produced to fit trending styles with a heavy reliance on non-biodegradable synthetic plastic fibres like nylon, polyester and spandex.

The environmental impact of a product and its packaging is largely decided at the design stage. Through thoughtful, interrogative design for circularity and recyclability, we can save resources, reduce waste, and ensure that products and their packaging have value in the recycling process.

Recycling Starts with Rethinking.

Pringles new packaging
Source: Green Dream Foundation

The Circular Economy: A Blueprint for Sustainability

The idea is simple: first, design the product so that it can be 100% recyclable and is indeed recycled right here in South Africa. Design for circularity. Design so that a key objective is that the product or packaging that gets thrown away doesn’t end up in landfills causing pollution but back in the shops as a new product.

Guidelines for Designing for Recyclability

Minimise and simplify. Reduce any gratuitous materials and packaging (that add no functional benefit) used in or on the product. Extra material or mixing of materials simply creates more waste, as it makes the product difficult to sort and recycle. Design packaging that is easy to disassemble and sort.

Localise material selection. Use materials in your packaging that can be recycled in South Africa, where there is an end-use market. Speak to your Producer Responsibility Organisation, or ask your local recycling companies what materials they collect and recycle. Therefore, it’s important to design packaging that makes economic sense for local waste-pickers and recyclers, because if it has no end-use value, it will end up in landfill despite it being “recyclable”.

Fit for Purpose. Consider a holistic approach to design that is suitable for the product and the packaging. Take into account the preservation and protection needs of the product. Be aware of unintended consequences that can solve one problem and create another one. Through careful selection, packaging can effectively serve its purpose while aligning with sustainability goals.

Assess environmental impact. Evaluate the entire lifecycle of the product from how much energy it takes to make, to how easy it is to transport and distribute to any impact the use of the product may have. The level of recyclability will obviously have a key bearing on its environmental impact.

Challenges and Benefits in Design for Recyclability

Companies often face challenges when trying to shift to more recyclable designs. For example, the initial costs for new moulds can be high, and there is a fear of how the market will receive the new design (for example when Quality Street changed its non-recyclable wrappers to recyclable ones, their customers complained the new wrappers looked “cheap”). However, there are also numerous benefits. Well-designed packaging can result in cost savings, allow entry into new markets, and build credibility and consumer trust as more individuals become educated on sustainability.

Credit: ALAMY

Practical Example: The Pringles Case Study

Pringles, the iconic potato chip invented by organic chemist and food storage technician Fredric John Baur, came in tube packaging labelled “a recycler’s nightmare” in the UK. Pringles, now owned by Kellogg’s, invested €100 million (approximately 1.7 billion South African Rand) in developing fully recyclable packaging. It took almost five years of research to create a paper tube that is lighter, requires less water, emits 40% less CO2, and costs less. The design change replaced the steel base with a paper-cardboard end, making it fully recyclable.

 If it’s Green, show it.

As a consumer, it’s often difficult to visually identify recyclable elements in a product. The responsibility rests with brands (producers and brand owners) to label their products accurately by providing clear content and disposal instructions. This is essential for guiding consumer choices and ensuring proper disposal that enables separation at source recycling in South Africa.

South Africa’s Informal Recycling Economy

Most South Africans don’t know that our recycling sector is significantly boosted by an informal sector of collectors (sometimes also called reclaimers or waste pickers), who collect and sell recyclable materials. Recently the Pretoria-based Council for Scientific and Industrial Research estimated that reclaimers recycle as much as 90 per cent of South Africa's plastic and packaging. So, by creating packaging that is economically viable for local collectors, your brand not only supports their livelihoods but also strengthens the overall recycling ecosystem in South Africa.

 Designing the Way to a Sustainable Future

The global environmental crisis is reason enough for us to take decisive action now to reduce pollution. And we have the power to do it. By thinking smartly when we design and acting responsibly when using and disposing of products and packaging.

Designing for recyclability should be a priority for companies and will be critical in the drive for a circular economy. Environmental reputation for brands will increasingly form a greater part of buying decisions.

Through informed choices and by supporting products designed for recyclability, we can collectively work towards a more sustainable and pollution-free future. It is imperative for stakeholders across the supply chain to embrace these practices and understand the positive implications of design for recyclability.

COOKIES: This site uses cookies to enhance your website experience. See our cookie policy for further details.