How We Design Our Way Out of Our Plastic Problem

By Ignacio Gavilan Director, Sustainability, The Consumer Goods Forum

Our relationship with plastic needs to change, and fast. The urgency around the plastics issue has been felt even more keenly since negotiations for a legally binding global plastic treaty began last month. There is no doubt that plastic can have an important role in getting people certain food, drinks and other products in a safe and reliable way. But it is critical that we use less plastic and, wherever possible, better plastic to protect the natural environment while meeting the needs of our growing global population. Ultimately, we need a better system that supports a circular economy for plastics, where it is used again and again in many forms, instead of becoming waste or pollution.

For the consumer goods sector, this means dramatically stepping up our game when it comes to redesigning plastic packaging upstream while increasing collection, sortation and recycling downstream. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of plastic packaging that is designed poorly. For example, a lot of plastic packaging still contains problematic materials like PVC, meaning that most plastic packaging still isn’t recycled and ends up in landfill or incineration.

This is why the 40 retailers, consumer brands and convertors in The Consumer Goods Forum’s (CGF) Plastic Waste Coalition of Action worked with industry experts, recyclers and plastics associations from over 25 countries to develop the Golden Design Rules for plastic packaging. Thirty-three leading multi-national companies have now signed up to implement one or more of these rules across their plastic packaging portfolios by 2025. These rules are a set of voluntary, independent and time-bound commitments that aim to minimise waste, streamline designs and simplify the plastic recycling process – ultimately increasing recycling.

The rules are building momentum to deliver the further design changes necessary to meet the targets laid out in the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. Set up by the United Nations and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Commitment is a global initiative to create an entirely circular plastics economy.

There are nine Golden Design Rules. The first is of particular significance. It focuses on increasing the value of PET recycling. PET is polyethylene terephthalate, one of the most common plastic materials. Typically, it’s used in food containers, drink bottles and the synthetic textiles in our clothing. In fact, PET bottles represent 13% of all plastic packaging on the market. Consequently, improving PET recycling is essential to achieving a circular economy for plastics.

One of the key issues with PET recycling is the use of pigments and dyes in plastic bottles, which can make it difficult and expensive to sort bottles into different colour streams for recycling. However, recycling lots of different coloured PET bottles together means you end up with a murky, low quality recycled plastic that isn’t suitable for use in consumer packaging. Unfortunately, this means that many plastic bottles still aren’t recycled back into plastic bottles.

Golden Design Rule 1 aims to address this. It outlines that all bottles should be clear or translucent blue or green as these are the easiest to sort and have the highest material value once recycled.

There are other factors besides the bottle’s colour that can impact on its recyclability. Therefore, Golden Design Rule 1 also lays out specifications for the size of labels on PET bottles, the materials that can be use and the glue used to attach them, so that these aren’t problematic when it comes to recycling.

The rest of the rules cover topics like removing problematic elements from plastic packaging (e.g. PVC, PS, EPS); eliminating excess headspace in flexible packaging; eliminating unnecessary plastic overwraps; improving the recycling value of PET thermoformed trays; and reducing the use of virgin plastic.

Some of our members have already made fantastic progress when it comes to better plastic packaging design. For example, to celebrate Earth Day this year, soft drinks and food giant PepsiCo launched label-free PET bottles in China on e-commerce channels, following an initial launch in South Korea in October 2021. By removing both the plastic label of a traditional PET bottle and the ink printing on the closure, Pepsi was able to reduce the product’s carbon footprint throughout its life cycle and make these bottles easier to recycle. Additionally, to increase plastic circularity, Pepsi also included 24% recycled PE in the secondary shrink film.

Chemical and consumer goods multinational Henkel is working to transition many of the PET bottles in its portfolio to clear PET. In Italy, for example, Henkel’s brand Nelsen’s, a hand dishwashing soap, is using now transparent PET bottles rather than white. Also, 50% of Henkel’s global shower gel portfolio of its main brands including Fa, Dial and Bernangen are packed in clear PET.

Henkel also champions floatable sleeves on bottles instead of traditional labels, as they can easily be separated during the recycling process. To date, the company has introduced them across its fabric softener portfolio, including the Vernel brand. It will soon roll out floatable sleeves across all its sleeved bottles.

Global packaging company Amcor developed a 100% PCR and label-less PET bottle in Argentina. This launch was in partnership with Danone, global food and beverage company, and Argentinean moulded plastic Moldintec, for the water brand Villavicencio.

This innovation is groundbreaking for two reasons. First, it eliminates unnecessary plastic by removing the plastic label. Secondly, it makes the bottles more recyclable, because there’s less risk that labels or adhesives contaminate the recycling process. It also removes the need for sorting and separating labels and bottles, making it more cost-efficient.

What’s more, the new label-less bottle is made from 100% post-consumer recycled content and has a reduced carbon footprint of 21% compared to its previous incarnation.

These are just a few leading examples of companies implementing the Golden Design Rules and putting good intentions into action. This kind of innovation represents the way forward for designing plastic packaging in the consumer goods sector. Of course, there’s still much work still to be done, not least scaling these trailblazing initiatives across the whole industry. Indeed, the adoption of such practices should be an immediate priority.

The CGF Golden Design Rules provide a playbook for implementing the vital design changes that we know are needed, so that, for the sake of the planet, we can tackle the increasingly urgent problem of plastic waste and accelerate the transition to a circular plastics economy.

If you want to find out more about the Golden Design Rules, or think they could be relevant to your organization, please contact us using this link and we will be able to provide more detail and answer any questions you may have.

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