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Circular Design Refinement Q&A

Dr. Mats Linder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation provides responses to some of the key questions submitted by community members during the Refinement Phase.  


To what extent will solutions require supporting regulations at the US Federal or EU level? What's the role of local governments?


There is no straightforward answer to this. Policymakers and legislators play a crucial role in creating enabling conditions (and removing existing barriers) to circular solutions. Local governments are important since their juristiction often concern waste management and recycling regulations, which impact incentives to use novel design solutions.


Is more recyclable always preferable to biodegradable plastics?


From a material footprint perspective, this is generally true, since composting biodegradable plastics amount to 'cold incineration' with no nutritiounal value add. However, in the multitude of applications where recycling is unfeasible or just unlikely to happen, composting could be a good alternative. Consider, for example, packaging with lots of food waste stuck on them – composting such packaging will help collecting the food waste for composting as well.


Is there a particular problem with the addition of chlorine to plastic polymers?


Depends on what you mean with the question. PVC (polyvinly chloride) contains chlorine and is fraught with issues in manufacturing, use and after-use due to the potential exposure to chlorinated organic compounts. In itself chlorine is often used as a bleach (though increasingly rarely) and will often react with other substances to form hydrochloric acid, which is corrosive and could damage products and/or packaging.


How are existing but not common plastics being incorporated as solutions to design challenges. By existing but not common plastics, I would include PEF (Polyethylene Furanoate) and associated precursor materials. How would prolonging the lifetime of existing and common used plastics (PET, PP) meet the criteria for solving the challenge?


It is well known that regardless the application, uncommon polymer types have small chances of becoming recycled in the current system. So when designing a new solution – this should be taken into account, especially by avoiding mixing different polymers in one unsepearable component. However, this is not a formal barrier to propose the use of for example PEF, which is  very promising material and has generated a lot of interest in the market. If successful, it will sooner or later be high enough volume to warrant general collection and recycling. Prolonging the lifetime of any polymer (in the sense that one enables it to go through several use cycles) is definately in scope, but the challenge lies in making this possible through design.


How do producers keep track of their materials and waste at the moment? And could the blockchain improve their communication in a trustful way? Does something like "I have this waste, who needs this?" happen?


Tracking material flows post point of sale is not done comprehensively today, but several large players are working on it. The blockchain is an interesting tool in this regard, but there are doubts on whether coupling it to material flows monitoring will happen given the realtively low value per tonne of this material. After-use plastics markets (both formal and informal) of course involve an extent of open market bidding, but anything from shipping to the current highest bidder to long-term publicly procured contracts exist.


What key questions can I ask myself to check if my business model responds to a circular economy model?


Are you sourcing your material and energy inputs from renewable sources or do you incorporate non-virgin materials / components?
Does your business model incentivise repair / reuse / remanufacturing of the product you are making/selling? e.g. Can you run your business as a 'product as a service' model with you or a contracted partner providing the logistics and operation to maintain / repair / remanufacture the product and put it back into the market?

Do you provide a service or product that significantly dematerialises some service? (e.g. does it lead to a dramatic reduction of single-use, non-recyclable coffee cup lids?)
Are you only using materials that can be recycled (or composted) in some way and use as input for another product after use?


Small packaging objects often are not recycled due to low retrieval in Material Recovery Facilities. Do product design that enable processes in MRFs be considered as a part of this challenge?


Yes they would – but emphasis is on design on the product / service side, not the MRF or recycling technology.


Are recycling plastics significantly harder than recycling other materials? (Glass, metals)


Yes, in the sense that plastics are highly differentiated and mixed materials to begin with, and cannot simply be turned back to 'virgin quality' the way metals and glass can. For example, there are hundreds or thousands of different kinds of LDPE on the packaging market, and mixing two different kinds of them generally leads to a recycled LDPE which is lower quality than either of the two separated.


Current design solutions such as straws, small sachet, peel-offs provide an experience what is valuable for the customers. New solutions to fulfill the same function can also provide valuable expreience including doing the right thing but require consumer curiosity to try it and readiness to change the way of interaction with the product. Could you please give an examples of successful transitions from old way to the new way?


This is a very good question but one that is difficult to answer in general terms. Transitioning from 'old' to 'new' requires a combination transparency of the total benefits, some incentive to change habits, plus relative ease of transition. The best option is of course if the new system does not add extra hassle or – even better – is superior in terms of user experience. Countries which have relatively high recycling rates often have source separation which is an added effort to users, but they get used to it after a relatively short period and are quite successful in supporting the collection system.


How can we design if our countries or cities do not have a clear politics or sustainability real ecosistem?


It is tricky of course, but it is ok to design with such policies in anticipation. More robust designs are less dependent on regulations or subsidies of course, but making realistic assmumptions is within scope.


What do you think are the best solutions for multi-layer flexible packaging? There's been some discussion about a global plastics protocol, do you see this happening in the near-short future? How do we make sure, that even having 100% recyclable plastic products, they end up on the right destination (globally)?


The New Plastics Economy initiative is working with a large portion of the industry on the notion of a global plastics protocol. Most of this work is yet confidential but the idea certainly exists. Multi-layer flims are a challenge that is addressed in the sister challenge to the Circular Design Challenge. The Circular Materials Challenge.


Is there no value at all for the small format plastic waste? Or is it just a problem of segregation?


The 'per kg' value for small format plastics is often the same as for other plastics. The problem lie in the format: (i) small-formats are more labouros to collect and as such are not 'worth the effort' for the informal waste management sector. (ii) Even if collected, small-formats (<40mm in diameter) tend to be rejected at screening tables and other operations to clear collected plastics of dirt and other residues. In addition, many small packaging formats trap a lot of air and would reduce the weight to volume ratio of packaging during transport.


Could we see point-source plastic collection as a win for retail and consumers? Local stores already need to process a large amount of outer packaging. What's our greatest challenge in creating a circular system of purchase/disposal which could also lead to ancillary revenue (benefit) for local business? Would it lead to better stewardship of recyclable material?


This could potentially happen – and work – but it would need to be a cleverly designed system (low operational costs, clever incentives etc.) to be meaningful for retailers to try out. They have a different core business, and if venturing into the waste management value chain they need to be prepared to handle a much more complex business.