Less than 10% of plastic worldwide gets recycled. But why? There are various reasons for the recycling rate being so low, and it’s partly due to a lack of recycling-infrastructure. However, a large part is due to the way plastics are made – they are not made to be reused. This is a major flaw in design at the manufacturing level. To be able to move towards a circular economy, where plastic reenters the production cycle, product redesign is necessary.
A failure in design
Plastic was designed to be a useful material, but nobody thought about where it would end up after it had been used, or whether it could be reused.
Many big corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have promoted plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades. Putting plastic in a recycling bin is all well and good, but it’s nowhere near enough to solve the problem. Firstly, for plastic to reenter the production cycle again, it needs to be recyclable. Secondly, production needs to be able to process and utilize recycled plastic, instead of only using virgin plastics.
A lot of plastics we use today are difficult to recycle, or are not recyclable at all. According to Greenpeace, mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic waste fails because plastic waste is extremely difficult to collect, virtually impossible to sort for recycling, and environmentally harmful to reprocess. Often it is made of, and contaminated by toxic materials and is not economical to recycle.
Circular Design Engineer Jose López-Aguilar argues in line with Greenpeace, that recycling is not enough. The problem needs to be addressed at its core.
Recycling is the minimum to which any product should aspire, both for reasons of circularity and economy. And for it to be circular and economical, it is essential for design to consider the technical and logistical constraints of the recycling system to avoid process inefficiencies, added costs or avoidable quality losses. But for a material to be recyclable, we must not forget that it is essential that there are products incorporating this recycled material. Therefore, the key is to design from recycling, i.e. for design to take into account the properties and characteristics of recycled materials, which are usually different from those of conventional virgin materials. Thus, an integration of design methodologies consistent with the recycling process will facilitate progress towards a realistic, effective and competitive recyclability of materials.
– Jose López-Aguilar, Co-founder of Oiko Design Office and Engineer for Circular Design
Plastic pollution stems from a design issue. We have designed our way into the plastic pollution problem, and we have to design our way out of it.
Redesigning products for a circular economy
For many decades, society has applied a linear economic model which has been successful in providing affordable products on a mass scale, but it has also polluted our planet. This linear model does not only apply to plastics, but to the economy as a whole. An example of this model can be seen in fast fashion, where clothes are being produced at a high rate for a low cost. Purchases increase all the while clothes are worn less, resulting in truckloads of discarded clothing being burned or buried in landfills.
The result of this wasteful economy is one of the underlying causes of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Instead, we need to work towards a shift to a circular economy, which is an economic model that minimizes waste by utilizing waste as a resource. By doing so, material can be used in successive production cycles. A circular economy offers both opportunities for better growth that not only contribute to creating more resilient systems, but also provide society-wide benefits such as a healthier environment.
For companies to design their way away out of the plastic pollution problem, they can apply the circular design process.
The Ellen McArthur Foundation presented a circular design process which companies can implement. The process includes four stages and is based on approaches such as design thinking and human-centred design. The four stages being:
- Understand - Get to know your customer and the system that you currently use
- Define - Put the design challenge you’re currently facing into words, along with your intention to make a more sustainable solution
- Make - Ideate, design, and prototype as many iterations and versions as you can
- Release - Launch your new design into the world and build your narrative – deepen customer loyalty and investment from stakeholders by telling a compelling story
The foundation also highlights the fact that design is an iterative process that never finishes. Companies should constantly be testing and refining as they learn how their customers interact with their design, and how it fits within the wider system.
And the good news is that brands and designers are starting to do this. Often by using recycled plastics and reclaimed plastics as a material to create new products or packaging.
Some examples of this are The Ocean Clean Up Sunglasses, that use recovered plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in their sunglasses. And Adidas, who have created the Adidas x Parley collection, whereby every item is made from at least 75% recycled ocean plastic.
Read more: Where does the recovered plastic end up?
What efforts are needed
In order to make a difference and help restore our planet, we must rethink what has been known to be normal for a large part of our lives. Companies need to rethink their products and services, and think about how they can fit better into the circular economy. Individuals need to rethink what products they buy, and learn to make more educated and sustainable choices.
There are several ways for companies to contribute to plastic entering a circular economy instead of polluting the environment. One solution, which is suitable for any company, regardless of what type of products or services are offered, is to sponsor the recovery of plastic through Plastiks. By doing so, a selected amount of plastic will be removed from the environment and used as a resource instead. This will contribute to better living conditions for locals, provide a fair wage to plastic waste pickers, and help educate local communities, while also cleaning the planet – turning waste into resources.
There are three different ways that your company can collaborate with Plastiks:
- You can set a plastic recovery goal and choose a recovery project to sponsor on a monthly basis.
- You can create utility NFTs to be sold on the Plastiks marketplace. Every NFT sold sponsors the recovery of plastic somewhere in the world.
- Sponsor plastic recovery with your products. For every product sold, each sale will support plastic recovery with your chosen recovery project.