Design For Recycling Challenges the Industry
Companies like Henkel and Procter & Gamble and retailers like dm, Rossmann, Lidl and Aldi want to put only recyclable packaging on sale by 2025. In order to fulfill these plans, the packaging industry must focus even more on design for recycling. This is because the market is seeing a significant increase in composite packaging made of paper and plastic.
Consumer goods packaging made of plastic or paper is often advertised as "less plastic," which is supposed to suggest to the consumer that it is particularly environmentally friendly. Isabell Schmidt, Managing Director of Circular Economy at the IK Industrievereinigung Kunststoffverpackungen, has already called this a "misconceived plastic reduction" that does not lead to the goal. A study carried out on behalf of the IK, for example, shows that the rising proportion of composites is causing increasing problems with waste paper recycling. And what plastic coating remains can only be recycled for energy due to the strong residual adhesion of paper fibers. There are clear guidelines for this: "With the minimum standard for recyclability of the Central Packaging Register (ZSVR), we have a good starting point to which manufacturers can orient themselves," says Norbert Völl, press spokesman for Der Grüne Punkt Holding.
No compromises on technical functionality
But what is the reason why packaging that is problematic in terms of recycling continues to appear on the market? It's not just a matter of getting away from materials that can't be recycled. It's also about preserving the technical functionalities of the packaging. And these often cannot be discussed, says Johannes Wedi, Technical Director Technical Service R+D at Bischof + Klein, Lengerich. For example, although plastics are becoming thinner and thinner, the requirements for ejection and puncture resistance remain unchanged: "Polyester is state of the art, but when mixed with polyolefins it is not recyclable. If you want other material, you have to compromise on strength."
Sometimes, however, design preferences are apparently shaped by pre-recycling times: Then companies complain about "missing dots" in the color application of PCR materials, but these cannot be avoided due to the type and structure of the plastic. Wedi recommends communicating this as a characteristic of PCR and thus propagating its recyclability. However, this is not always well received by marketing departments.
Henkel is making efforts to achieve the targets it has set itself, even without direct monetary incentives: "In 2022, all packaging for our hand dishwashing detergents produced in Germany was switched to high-quality PET recyclate from the yellow bag. This packaging now consists of 50 percent recyclate from the yellow bag," says Dr. Thorsten Leopold, Henkel Corporate Director Global R&D Packaging Laundry & Home Care, describing one of the measures. Another is to offer refillable pouches for cleaning products, which can save around 70 percent plastic compared to buying a new bottle. Design for recycling may mark the start of the circular economy, but it won't achieve the goal on its own. "To move forward, the recycling infrastructure needs to be further developed to increase the amount of high-quality recyclate available on the market," Leopold stresses. In addition, he says, close partnerships with recyclers and packaging manufacturers are important.
Wedi uses the example of Holy Grail to show just how important these partnerships are: the labeling of different plastics with a kind of watermark is technically possible. However, the necessary investments by the waste disposal companies would stand in the way of widespread introduction: Even one sorter working with infrared technology costs 100,000 to 150,000 euros, and each of the disposal companies would have to install several machines. But without purchase guarantees, the investments do not pay off. Ergo: "We have to involve the disposal companies in the projects!"
Der Grüne Punkt addresses this discrepancy and aims to create incentives: Those who make an effort to increase recyclability should be rewarded. "Eco Fee Modulation" is what Völl calls the privately organized fund solution: manufacturers pay a uniform surcharge into a recycling fund for disposable packaging. By changing the packaging design to make it more recyclable, they can save the fees they have to pay to the fund. The fees are collected by the dual systems infrastructure, and the funds are managed by ZSVR.