Published 08th December 2021 | Blog

Sustainability in Product Design: Plastic and Packaging

In the last 30 years, consumerism, globalisation and rising populations have led to a massive pollution problem. The human obsession with plastic is having an enormous impact on ecosystems, wildlife and the environment.

The global consensus is that we must move from a single use, linear economy to a circular system.

Plastics are used everywhere from design and manufacturing, through products, packaging, transportation and delivery.

So how do we begin to tackle such a vast problem and create more sustainable solutions?

The Impact of Our Obsession with Plastic

A recent study published in Science found that every person in the UK throws away an average of 215g of plastic each day — equivalent to around 22 plastic bottles. Some of that can be recycled, but much of it cannot. In the US the figure is higher at 335g.

Not all countries use as much plastic as this, but even so the seven billion plus humans and global industry on earth are responsible for generating over 1 billion kilograms of plastic waste every single day.

Most of this plastic use derives directly or indirectly from products that:

  • Contain plastic, or
  • Are wrapped/packaged in plastic.

The WWF has estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic items in the sea than fish if we continue to throw away plastic at the current rate.

Micro-plastics are a particular problem and are now found in the food we eat and the water we drink. In the last 12 months, you will have consumed a credit card’s worth of plastic without even realising.

What Can Product Design Do for Sustainability?

EU research suggests that:

80% of the environmental impact of any product derives ultimately from the design stage

To put it another way, if every product were designed with sustainability as a priority, the environmental impact of manufactured products could be reduced to around 20% of its current level.

The concept of sustainable design has been around for decades, but until recently it has been largely ignored by most manufacturers.

In fact, it can be the central plank of the circular economy, in which the linear journey from raw materials to waste is replaced by a constant cycle of reuse.

Sustainable Packaging Design

Designing for end of life

Clearly recycling is key, but a product must be designed to be easily recycled.

For example, plastics such as PET and HDPE are fairly easy to recycle, whereas the commonly used polystyrene and PVC are extremely difficult.

Many products contain several types of plastic, so recognising this at the design stage would involve:

  • Easy disassembly
  • Easy separation of different types of plastic (and of plastics from other materials)
  • Easy plastic recycling at end of life.

Beyond recycling, however, product designers need to consider a number of other issues in their designs.

Dematerialisation

Dematerialisation is about designing a product to contain fewer materials, reducing size, weight and number. The less plastic that needs to be used, the less impact it will have at end of life.

Obviously, this can only be taken so far, because product lifespan and durability must also be maintained.

Skilled sustainable product design can deliver a product that not only lasts but also has a lower environmental impact than would have been the case with traditional design techniques.

Repair

Our grandparents used to “make do and mend”, but we have now become used to throwing away (or in some cases recycling) anything that develops a fault.

While this is partly an issue of consumer behaviour, it is fed by design that makes repair difficult as well as by policies on the part of some manufacturers of “design for obsolescence” where products are deliberately designed with set lifespans for commercial reasons.

Many consumer electronics items available today are seen as little more than cheap, disposable goods designed only for short-term use.

For example, a lawnmower that costs around £50 may seem like a bargain. But many cheap lawnmowers are manufactured from inferior quality, unrecyclable materials and components, with the result that they tend to break down or fail after a single season. Because they are not designed to be (easily) repaired, and the only solution is for them to go off to landfill.  

Conversely, higher quality, more durable lawnmowers may cost more to buy, but may well have a lifespan of 10 or 15 years, maybe more, and are typically easier to repair.

All things are relative and of course much depends on other factors such as usage and storage, but the point remains: products can be designed to be durable and repairable.

Disassembly

We are used to the idea that if we cannot use a product any longer, we get rid of it. This is because most products are made so that they cannot be taken apart and repurposed.

But there is no reason this shouldn’t be possible if they’re designed to be disassembled.

The new approach to this issue is design for disassembly or modularity — designing products so that they can be taken apart at the end of their life, with the parts:

  • Incorporated into something different
  • Easily recycled as separate components for either recycling or disposal.

Packaging

Besides products, the packaging industry is also a major contributor to plastic waste.

Much of this consists of the chips and bubble wrap used for transportation, made worse because the packaging is often out of proportion with the object being transported.

How often have you received something tiny, such as a USB widget, in a box hundreds of times its size and full of packaging materials?

Unrecyclable packaging is a particular problem at Christmas time. Thousands of tons of Christmas wrappings, foil-based paper, plastic boxes and synthetic ribbons, cannot be recycled and end up in landfill sites every year.

Packaging for Sustainable Products

There are alternatives, however.

At Cambridge Design Technology, for instance, we are now using plain, unbleached cardboard with maize-based packing chips, and we are researching packing tape reinforced with paper or cotton. But to limit our use of these we always reuse any bubble wrap/boxes/air pockets etc. we might receive.

Sustainable Product Design is the Future

Every design we create at Cambridge Design Technology is led where possible by considering the effect the product will have on the environment, from manufacture to end of life, and we make sure that every design that goes out can be part of the circular economy.

Our goal is to ensure that our clients benefit from innovative product and technology designs that do not contribute to environmental destruction and degradation.

Please contact us to find out more.

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