"Circular design of plastic packaging: A comparative analysis"
, Johannes Kepler Universität Linz (JKU), Linz, Austria, 5-2021
Circular design of plastic packaging: A comparative analysis
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From the second half of the 20thcentury on, plastics started to gain relevance as a prime packaging material for both food and non-food products. Through packaging innovation, long shelf-life and high convenience in handling were obtained. However, plastic packaging is a cause for rising concern. The high use of packaging paired with their typically short lifetime leads to increasing waste volumes. Often, plastic waste ends up in landfills, is incinerated, or leaks into the environment rather than finding its way back into the economy via proper cycling. A resulting problem is the low circularity of end-of-life plastic packaging. A potential solution is a cycling-compatible packaging design. In contrast to a Linear Economy (take, make, dispose), in a Circular Economy (CE), products or materials can be cycled in technical loops (reuse, repair, recycle) and in biological loops (composting, digestion). To fit into one of these cycles, packaging must be designed in way to be compatible with at least one closed material loops. How a cycling-compatible product design might look is subject to various packaging design standards. In this thesis, six sustainability-oriented guideline standards and one requirement standard were analyzed and compared to each other. Moreover, expert interviews were conducted to include an additional empirical element in the comparative analysis besides the standards. The standards were compared means of a qualitative content analysis. The analysis focuses on the type and number of packaging design elements addressed in each standard as well as on potential conflicts between the design recommendations and the basic packaging functions defined in the literature. Further categories of evaluation were the elimination of certain formats, materials, and substances and the technical feasibility of the recommendations from a polymer engineering perspective. The analysis was performed separately for each standard prior to their comparison. Finally, the comparative analysis revealed that most standards propose a similar packaging design and meet the CE ambitions without seriously conflicting with the basic packaging functions. However, the topics of polymers science and the toxicological profile of the output material from recycling processes remain mostly untouched in the standards. This might be due to difficulties in assessing the risk of various modifiers, residues from the synthesis, and degradation products within the polymer. Another reason might be the interests of lobbies behind the guidelines since a considerable number of the guidelines were published by members of the plastics or packaging industry. Still, it can be concluded that the standards reviewed in this thesis, help to organize the waste treatments and to establish a clear base for further developments. Moreover, they contribute to reducing the share of plastic packaging considered as non-recyclable at their end-of-life. But for really closing the loop of plastic packaging, design standards should incorporate more substantive specifications with regards to polymer science and toxicological profiles of substances and their effect on recycled material quality.