When discussing the issues around environmental protection, recycling and the circular economy, innovation is often cited as the magic bullet. Innovations not subject to a detailed and thorough life cycle analysis may place an additional burden on the end-of-life recycling of plastic products and packaging. This article makes the case for reviewing our innovation criteria in order to strengthen recycling channels.
Intrinsically, innovation is neither good nor bad. Like any human activity, it can only ever be what we want it to be. Blind worship of innovation can result in potentially harmful chain reactions. How many products with so-called ‘innovative’ designs are causing problems for the recycling industry? How much packaging is in theory recyclable, but is not collected or sorted, because the sector is not sufficiently mature to handle it? And what about those materials that are perfectly recyclable on paper, but which nevertheless compromise the quality of recycled material?
There’s no point in denying it: ‘blind’ innovation can impose an additional burden on product end-of-life of recycling. That burden also hits the French population in their pockets, because it forces local authorities to pay for the upgrading of sorting facilities and the restructuring of waste collections, among other things. Another aggravating factor is that since plastic materials are recognised and valued for their durability, they can rapidly become persistent waste if not managed properly at the end of their useful lives.
Using innovation to improve recycling
So rather than innovating purely for the sake of innovation, we are proposing the alternative approach of using innovation to help us recycle better. Packaging manufacturers must, from the design stage onwards, ensure that their products are designed to be easily recycled by choosing materials that will neither complicate sorting nor degrade the recycled material. This is all about method: products must adapt to the recycling channels available, and not the other way around. Which is why it is so important to work hand-in-hand with eco-organisations and recycling industry associations, because these stakeholders are the best qualified to list those types of packaging that cause recycling problems due to their size, colour, label type, the presence or absence of an attached cap and the types of plastic used. The same process could also flag up the problems caused by packaging and products that contain too many resins. Rather than wasting time on inventing new recycling processes for materials that struggle to achieve the critical mass necessary for the sector to function properly, perhaps we should opt for simplification, and even standardisation. The packaging sector would undoubtedly benefit greatly from a reduction in the number of materials used. This would make sorting easier, improve recycling quality and increase recycled raw material quality.
Our decision at Agriplas to work with Eranova, a company that produces biosourced resin from green algae, is an excellent example of virtuous innovation in action. The benefit of their plastic material – a mixture of seaweed starch and HDPE – is that the resulting packaging does not disrupt the sorting process or compromise the quality of recycled plastic (*tests carried out at CRITT, the French Innovation and Technology Transfer Centre).
The plastics industry has no lack of resources
As a manufacturer of plastic packaging for industrial and retail customers, we have a significant role to play in transforming our industry into the leading force in recycling and the circular economy by taking action as early as the product design stage. It is at the very beginning of their lives that the fate of packaging products is decided in terms of the type of plastic used, its recyclability, its lifespan, the ease or otherwise of maintenance, and many other factors. At Agriplas, this fact has encouraged us to completely change the way we produce some of our flagship products by combining eco-design with economy of functionality. We are currently developing a MultiWay IBC that can be completely dismantled for easier maintenance and end-of-life recycling of every single component as part of creating the circular economy. Highly resistant to corrosion and lighter in weight as a result of using the blow moulding process (25% weight saving compared to the heavy IBCs on the market today), and equipped with fully replaceable components, we have designed this IBC to extend the lifespan of the entire product family from an average of 4 years to 5 years. In other words, although the production of plastic packaging remains our core business, the maintenance of these products has become a key issue for us and our customers. The actions we are now taking enable us to extend the life of packaging, at the same time as reducing our carbon footprint as we explore new business models; in this case, transitioning from selling a product to selling a service.
Reviewing our innovation criteria to encourage and facilitate recycling is a commitment consistent with Article 5 of the French Anti-Waste and Circular Economy Act of 10 February 2020 which sets the target of recycling 100% of end-of-life plastics by 2025. We have a long way to go, since we are only at 23% today, but it will be worth the effort. According to the French National Union of Plastics Reclaimers, producing one tonne of recycled plastic in France can emit up to seventeen times less carbon dioxide, and require up to nine times less non-renewable energy than producing one tonne of new plastic. If we also consider the end-of-life impact avoided, it is clear that recycling one tonne of plastic packaging results in between two and three tonnes of CO2 emissions saved. But to meet this challenge, recycling channels will have to run smoothly and perfectly.
Extending the useful life of plastic packaging
Looking beyond the issue of recycling, innovation also has a role to play in extending the useful life of plastic packaging. In recent years, manufacturers of industrial and commercial plastic packaging have used their innovation expertise to make products easier to maintain, repairable, stronger, washable and even reusable. This trend is a game changer, because extending the life of a packaging product spreads the environmental impact imposed by its production.
Plasma technology is a good example of an innovation that can extend the useful life of packaging. It creates a protective layer on the inside of a container that eliminates migration of its contents into the container itself, and externally. The result is that the packaging product offers optimal barrier properties and its recyclability is improved. Plasma technology also lowers the surface tension of packaging, making it easier for products to flow and the container to be washed. The promising potential of this technology has logically led us to invest in a dedicated machine which is now in operation at our Dinard production centre.
We are using the full range of resources to extend the life of packaging at every link in the chain. The latest example is our 20L Shark jerrycan, which has been redesigned to include embossing that improves its compression strength without increasing its weight.
Significantly increasing the range of applications, delaying the point at which packaging hits the recycling bin and recycling plastics efficiently at the end of their useful life… In a way, all these initiatives amount to nothing other than a return to the fundamentals of the circular economy, i.e. “an economic system of exchange and production which acts at every stage of the product life cycle with the aim of using resources more efficiently in order to reduce the impact on the environment”.
And so the circle is complete.