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Making Plastics Circular is a journey : Design is the first step

Hi readers,

I am Manon (ESR 3); these are my insights of the first day of this third NTE named Design for Circularity.

To open this interesting conference, Dr Leyla Acaroglu made a powerful speech about the notion of design in a circular economy. Human designed systems that result in waste are seen as a loss of value. Dr Acaroglu stresses that plastic is, and must be, part of our circular economy. She proposes recycling as part of the recapture strategy, but cautions that recycling does not solve the initial issue. To remove plastic waste from our environment, we need to rethink our method to design plastics. Drawing on her experience as the 2016 UNEP champion of the earth, Dr Acaroglu proposes a disruptive design method based on three principles: Mining, Landscaping, Building.

The three-tiered approach considers sustainable design strategies involving the responsibility of waste at the end-of-life. There is not only one solution, but the designer mindset must take into account all the life cycle of the product and its impact from the extraction of resources to its end-of-life. The product must be thought of as a service to maximize its value across its entire lifecycle.

Dr Acaroglu describes the current circular economy using the Iceberg metaphor to imply that designers must see the whole picture. She reminds us that it is important to identify elements and connect them. If you are interested to know more about the methodology to design, I invite you to explore here, where you can find a circular redesign toolkit in open source!

Thanks, Leyla, for this opening speech. I will remember this sentence: "the future is designed by us".

Less provocative but directly confronted to the reality of the circularity challenges, Pieter Cools presented Amcor Flexible’s circular position on flexible packaging; Peter Sandkühler, and sustainability experts, Isabel Arroyo and Georgios Bellos, presented DOW’s circular perspectives. Plastic packaging was in the spotlight during these sessions. From brand owners, who demand more sustainable packaging to fulfill the legislation requirements for 2030, to consumer pressure, manufacturers, such as Amcor and DOW, are facing an increased demand to produce more sustainable plastic packaging. Packaging is used to protect the product and to answer to mandatory functionalities according to the product specifications. If the use of multi-material packaging is not suitable for recycling, it is also true that mono-materials cannot provide all the functionalities.

Through its design guidelines, Amcor is renovating its flexible solutions to mono-material with the objective to maintain the same level of quality, preserving the product functionalities. Collaboration will be key in the future between the academic and the industries to provide recycling infrastructure and tools for industries regarding the use of additives, inks, and adhesives labels compatible with the recycling technologies.

According to DOW, the emergence of chemical recycling will also be a key to future food-contact grade plastic circularity. The use of oils from plastic waste could be a solution, and works must be done to scale corresponding technologies. Recycling is a potential end-of-life, but manufacturers are also the direct witness of the arrival on the market of reusable packaging. Industries started to collaborate to control the plastic feedstock waste and ensure the quality of the recycled plastics. For example, Recyclass and industries worked on protocols to evaluate plastic recyclability. It is a clear message that the industries and the value chain are demanding a tool to integrating the life cycle of the product with the circular targets of 2025. DOW also renovated its portfolio to remove multilayer for mono-material. To preserve the functionalities of mono-materials, they must use several layers of the same polymer oriented differently and sometimes tie layers. A powerful example is removing the PA layer from the PE-rich thermoforming: move from PE/PA/EVOH/PA/PE to PE/PE/EVOH/PE/PE.

Amcor and Dow concluded their presentation with this interesting sentence for us as young researchers: there is no limit but only opportunities in research.

The day ended up with a wonderful jazz concert, given by the talented band JazzAmuze. Thank you for the evening. It seems that we also have musicians in the group.

It is a journey to make plastic circular, let’s do it!


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