How do we use recycled content in design? What are the limitations and flexibilities of using recycled materials instead of virgin materials? MCX ThinkLAB Senior Material Scientist, Sarah Hoit, discusses the importance of thinking about materials through every step of the design process to make the best use of recycled content.
Where do we start when talking about the marriage of design and recycled/recyclable materials?
Sarah Hoit: If we look triangle icon that we use in the U.S., there are three main points in the recycling process: there is the point at which a consumer says we’re finished with something and rinse the product and put it in the recycle bin. There are then people that process that into chips and other reusable formats that are precursors. And then there’s a third part that we sometimes forget about, which is that in order for this to be a cycle, there need to people designing with recycled content into products.
Method does a beautiful job of this and use it in their marketing, and it aligns well with their brand and there are many brands who are looking to represent themselves and their core identity and values with a sustainability component. It’s good marketing and it’s good business. But, as a designer, working with recycled materials can be different than working with virgin materials.
One of the most dramatic ways that comes to life is in cleanliness in the way of color. Something like PET bottles for water, they’re all clear and you can get a nice clear or white color from them. But if you have something that’s got more variety, is less high volume or isn’t coming in all the same colors — if we start recycling all of the children’s toys of polyethylene and shampoo bottles, we have a lot of colors. So, as designers, we need to think more in a black/gray palette or think about products that have a blend of recycled and non-recycled content to give flecks of color in a desired overall pigmentation. You can always go darker in color, but you can’t go lighter necessarily.
The other part of cleanliness has to do with certifications. If we’re making recycled shoe soles, we can source that from a lot of places. If we’re making children’s toys, since kids put everything in their mouths, we need to uphold a higher level of cleanliness in source and processing. We need map our supply chain from the original source, through our processing, and to the point where manufacturers get the recycled material at their factories.
Can you talk about some of the major certifications that exist in this realm, and how Material ConneXion deals in that?
SH: Some of the certifications are:
Initial Certification: a series of tests that verifies the material composition. This is key as traceability of the plastic’s life can be limited or impossible. There are 2 level of this: Business to business, which has higher traceability and requires fewer batches of testing Post-Consumer, which has a more complex life and lower traceability and requires more steps in testing.
UL’s Environmental Claim Validation program will validate the post-consumer, pre-consumer (post-industrial), or total recycled content of a product by means of auditing.
SCS Global Services: Recycled Content Certification evaluates products made from pre-consumer or post-consumer material diverted from the waste stream. Certification measures the percentage of recycled content for the purpose of making an accurate claim in the marketplace.
European Standard EN 15343:2007: European wide certification scheme for post-consumer plastics recycling. This scheme will assess the good practice, the output quality and the gain in terms greenhouse gases done by the audited recycler.
UL 746D specifically refers to reclaimed scrap from molding, such as sprues or runners, that are re-used in-house at a molding facility. Regrind that fits this definition can be re-introduced into the molding hopper to comprise up to 25% where the rest of the 75% is comprised of the same virgin grade that was used to mold the parts where the regrind came from.
Material ConneXion lists material certifications in the extended descriptions in our online database. We also use sustainability icons in our libraries to note when materials are recyclable and/or made of recycled materials.
Do you think there are products that are better suited for use of recycled materials? Are there some products that you think you genuinely cannot use recycled materials for?
SH: There are levels of complexity.
When we start talking about children, especially things in the mouth, or medical products, for instance, there are times when you don’t want to add any complexity to your supply chain. You want to have every faith and every level of double checking for safety and cleanliness. I think that’s where there can be a limit.
The other limits are limits we can decide to put on ourselves or not. If I say, “I want to use recycled plastics, but it needs to be transparent yellow,” that’s going to add some huge challenges to sourcing and, at the price point you want, may make that an impossibility. Some of the boundaries that keep recycled content out of product are self-imposed; color is a big one.
Also, there’s only so many times you can break something down and build it back up. There are two kinds of recycling: mechanical and chemical. At some point in the mechanical recycling cycle, you will start to lose performance, and that’s when recycling does inherently become downcycling.
You can only shred and melt so many times — 3 is a good rule of thumb. Sometimes you can take the things that have been through 3 times and, if you incorporate 50% virgin, you’d get a lower and lower percentage of recycled content, but you can try to keep using that material longer.
Chemical recycling actually breaks the molecular bonds down to all of their constituent parts and build them back up. You can essentially do that infinitely. The challenge is that it’s more expensive, but it is a viable option and, sometimes, it’s the only viable option for plastics and certain other materials. We can melt certain kinds of plastic, which makes it easy to shred and re-extrude. Other ones are thermosets and don’t melt in the same way; those do need to be broken down chemically.
In the past, we’ve discussed the U.S.’s municipal waste system, and we’ve touched on Europe, but we’ve never gone into much detail about it. Are there areas or countries that you see doing this kind of cycle well?
SH: When it’s a municipal or governmental program, the system has to focus on post-consumer collection. That’s where the government has a lot of play in municipal services. If nobody comes to pick up your recycling, it’s a much bigger ask to take it yourself to a facility. But, this part is also about designers deciding to use them and companies deciding that using recycled material is something that they’re willing to put the effort in to do. I say effort because it’s different and anything different takes effort.
Governments can incentivize this in a few ways, depending on subsidies or tax credits in place. For examples, the USDA BioPreferred is a great idea. The USDA has a list of products categories with different minimum bio-based content requirements for each product to earn the stamp. That’s great because then, as a consumer, I have the stamp of a trusted government authority to confirm that there is a certain percentage of bio-based content in this product. However, the down side of this is that it can lead designers, companies, and brands to only the minimum required amount. If that’s where the cut-off is for the gold seal, then that’s the cut-off that they’re going to self-assign to.
I think there’s consumer awareness and consumer demand for this, and it’s growing. A lot of commodity plastics in recycled content are the same price as commodity polymers and, depending on the kind you’re getting and the quality, the price can be even lower. With some brain power, a bit of effort, and buy-in from the company, it’s a very actionable solve for many companies.
Anything else to add?
SH: For designers who want to use recycled content, it’s a great solution for a lot of projects, and finding partners who provide that product is more and more readily available. Some poeple are tying it in and the sourcing can be important. For example, ECONYL® (MC#7417-01) from our library is a fiber supplier who offers fiber from fishing nets. That’s a very compelling story for many groups, especially companies whose brands are associated with the ocean, beach, and ocean sports. That’s a nice buy-in that aligns well with brand values.
At the end of the day, this is always going to be about seeing materials and design in concert. It’s chicken and egg in the best way. We talk about this at Material ConneXion a lot: design is an incredible tool and a special part of the brain, but there’s the challenge that it can be done in a moment of brilliant vacuum — that there’s the perfect object and the perfect curvature and the idealized design, and then when we try to put mediocre lighting and paint-bases and curvature limits and draw and stitching, the idealized version of the concept can’t be realized in the imperfect and physical world that we live in.
Making sure that you understand the parameters and benefits of the materials is key. For example, do you need thicker walls to allow yourself to use 100% recycled content? A little more thickness reduces the brittle nature of the plastic and it’s great. There are lots of solves if we start thinking about materials earlier in the process.