Planet 3 min
Eco-design: plastics in constant search of virtue
Eco-design, which meets a precise and somewhat complex definition, is a fundamental pillar of any environmentally responsible approach, including the circular economy. From the materials themselves to the products' end-of-life, it provides increasing virtue for plastics at every stage of their life cycle. Here is a brief review of the details.
Eco-design: plastics in constant search of virtue
© Freepik
Eco-design: plastics in constant search of virtue

Plastic containers get a bad press, particularly because many of them are still single-use. However, their efficiency is such that they remain unavoidable. They enable food to be stored for longer, while preserving its taste and quality and protecting it from microbes and microbiological contamination. Because they increase the shelf life of food by an average of 3 times, they are a key asset in the fight against food waste. Sturdy and shock-resistant, they transport, store and protect a multitude of fragile foodstuffs and products. In the medical sector, they guarantee the sterility and cleanliness of equipment, all at an affordable price.

© Freepik

It is hard to do without plastic packaging, as it guarantees perfect storage conditions. Even though they are still often only used once, almost all of them can be recycled fairly easily.

Squaring the circle

Reducing the environmental impact of packaging by making it lighter, reusable, recyclable, and recycled (i.e., sustainable) is a real environmental challenge, but also an economic one. It is up to manufacturers, in collaboration with plastic producers, to find effective, innovative solutions and reduce the impact of their products as much as possible, while preserving their performance.

© Faca

Reusing packaging is fashionable these days. Many cosmetics manufacturers now offer eco-refills.

Old as the hills, reuse is enjoying a new lease of life, particularly in the world of cosmetics. Sold in an attractively designed case, the product (a cream, for example) is packaged in a removable cartridge. Once the product has been used, the consumer simply needs to buy a refill, which will find its place in the case that they have kept. The Asquan brand, for example, offers a polypropylene refill that looks like an accordion.

Once in place, a simple press of a button at the end of the case releases the cream. Once empty, the refill can be recycled. Spain’s Faca Packaging goes even further, selling magnificent cases made from recycled PMMA. (For more examples, see our article on packaging).

The water bottle is undoubtedly the most emblematic plastic packaging.

Like many of its competitors, Austrian packaging manufacturer Alpla has been offering 100% recyclable PET bottles for several years now.

These already contain recycled plastic (in this case, 30%). Its latest innovation is a reusable, returnable bottle for the Vöslauer brand (see our interview).

© Alpla

Austria’s Alpla is now offering a range of recyclable and reusable bottles.

Bottle caps: far from a detail!

Starting in July this year, a European directive will require bottle manufacturers to attach caps to plastic bottles so that they are no longer thrown away separately. The primary aim is to ensure that these caps no longer end up in the environment or on our beaches. This is the first illustration of eco-design in the fight against litter.

Another - more traditional - advantage of the measure is that loose caps, which until now would, at best, slip through the cracks at sorting centres, would en their lives in incinerators. Which was unfortunate because these high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or polypropylene (PP) caps are a prized resource for polymer recyclers, who can now recover them

© Freepik

By July, all caps will have to be attached to their bottle. This is far from being a minor detail, as fewer caps will end up in the environment and more will be recycled.

 Ireland’s Smurfit Kappa has turned its attention to the Bag-in-Box®, a flexible polyethylene wineskin with a tap, packaged in a cardboard box. Until now, the tap had a detachable tab to guarantee that the product was tamper-proof. Most of the time, this tab was disposed of with household waste. So, the company redesigned the tap and did away with it altogether, designing a mechanical system attached to the tap to guarantee the integrity of the product. The packaging manufacturer has succeeded in using the same polymer (polyethylene) to design both the tap and the wineskin inside.Ireland’s Smurfit Kappa has turned its attention to the Bag-in-Box®, a flexible polyethylene wineskin with a tap, packaged in a cardboard box. Until now, the tap had a detachable tab to guarantee that the product was tamper-proof. Most of the time, this tab was disposed of with household waste. So, the company redesigned the tap and did away with it altogether, designing a mechanical system attached to the tap to guarantee the integrity of the product. The packaging manufacturer has succeeded in using the same polymer (polyethylene) to design both the tap and the wineskin inside.

Mono-material packaging: in search of the holy grail

Mono-material packaging (made from a single material) is simpler to recycle and has become very popular because it is no longer necessary to separate the components.

 © Smurfit Kappa

Ireland’s Smurfit Kappa has succeeded in reinventing its bag-in-box taps by doing away with the detachable tab without compromising the tamper-proof nature of the product.

By switching to a mono-material for its bag-in-box, Smurfit Kappa has made recycling easier.

There is no longer a need to separate the cap from the wineskin, as the whole unit can be recycled in the stream dedicated to polyethylene.

Doing away with multi-materials while retaining the same properties is no simple matter since each layer fulfils a different barrier function, depending on the product to be contained and protected (anti-UV, anti-oxygen, anti-moisture, etc.).

 It is all a question of dosing the additives and fillers or the orientation of the wefts. Numerous tests are needed to develop the right product and bring it to market. 
The innovations of Spain’s Rotorprint are particularly noteworthy. Last year, it offered the pharmaceutical industry a completely new blister packaging for capsules and pills.

Until then, these blisters could not be recycled because they consisted of a PVC or PVDC bottom sheet and an aluminium sealing sheet.

The new blister is 100% PET, meeting the requirements of recycling centres. The blister is transparent and has a passthrough system that allows the user to extract the pill with the same ease as with aluminium. Its barrier properties (oxygen and water vapour) are the same as those of conventional blisters.

© Rotorprint

Spain’s Rotorprint has managed to do away with the traditional aluminium seal for its medicine blisters. The new 100% PET material is now easily recyclable.

Since this year, it has been offering a new film designed for the manufacture of cases, also for the pharmaceutical industry. Until then these films were made up of several layers (aluminium, paper, polyester, polyethylene).

To provide the same functions and guarantee the same product preservation, the Spanish company has designed a film made up of two layers of polypropylene and one layer of polyethylene, two polymers from the same family (polyolefins) and therefore comparable to a mono-material.

 

© Rotorprint

Rotorprint is also at the cutting edge of innovation, and we have been looking at medicine cases. The latest products are made from a mono-material and are, therefore, also recyclable.

 This stick should be very popular in the food supplements market and even the personal hygiene products sector.
A final example comes from Germany’s Rainett, well known for its eco-friendly cleaning products. One of the pioneers of the refill system (see article on reuse), it launched the first mono-material eco-refill made from recycled PET in 2021. Two years later, the company added a fully recyclable trigger to its bottles, made from polypropylene (almost 30% of which is recycled). Fully recyclable, it contains no materials that interfere with sorting, such as metal springs, and no dyes.
It is 18% lighter than its competitors, making delivery lorries lighter. This well-understood eco-design approach reduces several impacts of the product at different stages in its life cycle.

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