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Recycled plastics: the eco-savvy product designer’s choice

Author : Sophie Thomas is Director of Design RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures

05 June 2017

The wide variety of innovative and sustainable recycled polymers produced in the UK make it easier than ever for branded OEMs to ‘go green’ with new product design.

VEKA Recycling - cable management

Sophie Thomas, Director of Design RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) examines how and why this material choice delivers a range of environmental and sustainable benefits for designers, manufacturers and their customers alike.

Increasingly, consumers are making purchasing decisions based on a product’s sustainable credentials. Does it contain recycled content? Can it be recycled and reused again at end of life? What is its carbon impact?

Recognising this growing environmental awareness among their customers, many major manufacturers are responding by incorporating ethical principles into their production processes and using this ‘added value’ to promote their brands and build customer loyalty.

This opens up opportunities for environmentally aware product designers to offer clients novel recycled content options that help to address the new ‘green consumers’ and add value to branded products. Increasing product appeal through sustainably sourced materials can ultimately lead to higher sales.

So why should designers incorporate recycled plastic content into new products and what are the benefits? With the concept of a circular economy gaining ground, recycling is going to become an increasingly important consideration. Allied to this, significant improvements have been made in the UK by local authorities, the recycling industry and the wider supply chain towards achieving a circular economy for plastics and reusing these valuable resources.

Raw material scarcity is an important consideration and recycling existing polymers ensures a sustainable and consistent supply for the future, reducing the reliance on dwindling virgin materials. It is also a low-carbon choice. Typically recycled polymers have about 50 to 75 percent of the carbon impact compared to taking oil out of the ground and making a virgin polymer - depending on the virgin polymer types.

The high quality of recycled polymers and their greater availability ensures a reliable and sustainable supply of locally-sourced recovered materials - a viable alternative to virgin materials and the more environmental choice for new plastic goods.

End users that enter into a long-term supply agreement with an integrated recycling business, such as those in the end-of-life vehicle or construction products sectors, can benefit from a reliable local feedstock. This shorter, lower risk supply chain from UK-based recyclate suppliers makes future production planning easier.

Another advantage of using recycled plastics in durable goods concerns multiple re-use. Design for recyclability is crucial. If the component design is right, plastics can be recycled many times through a well-structured end of life re-supply chain. 

Designers need to understand the design principles that enable the efficient release and recovery of materials during the recycling process. Equally, they should recognise the ‘black marks’ that apply to poorly designed products and wrong combinations of materials. Many everyday products have simple design-for-recycling guides, created by recyclers, which explain the ‘dos and don’ts’ of good design for recyclability. 

Recycled plastics can be used in many innovative applications and manufacturers are using them effectively in engineering products across diverse sectors from car components to vacuum cleaners. Here are some key examples:

VEKA Recycling - PVC-U windows into new windows and construction products

VEKA Recycling processes post-industrial and post-consumer PVC window frame material. The finished products – 100 percent recycled PVC pellet and micronised (pulver) are suitable for a wide range of manufacturing and extruded plastic goods, from building, roofline and cabling/ducting products to new windows.

Axion Polymers - BMW Mini air vent

PVC is a versatile material that can be readily recycled many times with no loss of performance, making it an ideal choice for use in building products with green credentials.

VEKA Recycling Commercial Director Simon Scholes says recycled PVC offers clear advantages of reliable consistent supply and improves the environmental credentials of manufacturers’ products. In releasing the reliance on virgin polymers, the company is giving longer life to plastic.

Axion Polymers & BMW Mini air vent

Axion Polymers’ recycled plastics derived from end-of-life vehicles are used to make new automotive-related products in an excellent example of the circular economy ‘in action’.  

Axpoly r-PP51, a black polypropylene (PP), is used to make the BMW Mini air vent that controls air entry and exit/pressure in the cabin. The polymer is also used in wider manufacturing industries, including water treatment, horticulture and retail goods.

Axion Polymers Director Keith Freegard says creating new manufactured products using materials resources that are ‘mined’ from closed-loop recycling routes provides a novel and environmentally responsible approach for vehicle producers that is both sustainable in the long term and also lower cost.

Luxus - automotive interior trims

Technical plastics recycler Luxus is developing a range of polypropylene (PP) compounds with up to 60 percent recycled content, aimed at Europe’s Class ‘A’ automotive interior trim market. Hycolene is a faster cycling range of scratch resistant, lightweight (PP) compounds that help deliver improved Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). The range is being developed to help satisfy both end-of-life vehicle (ELV) and emissions targets.

Recent trials concentrated on the following criteria: scratch resistance, weight savings, appearance and cycle time. The Hycolene16818 achieved a weight saving of up to 4.2 percent against the market’s current lightweight benchmark material. It also delivered improved colour, diminished weld lines and a rapid cycle time for reduced energy usage.

Terry Burton, Luxus Technical Manager says the appeal of Hycolene is that it allows manufacturers to satisfy environmental goals thanks to its recycled content without sacrificing performance – delivering a lighter, stronger and, critically, a high scratch-resistant finish.

Modern design and manufacturing is moving away from the traditional linear model of ‘take, make and dispose’ towards the circular flow of materials. Recycled plastics are a key part of the drive towards sustainable product design and the transition to a circular economy. 

Designers and specifiers of materials have a key role to play in breaking the linear model by challenging the ‘norms and ingrained habits’ and forcing the material supply chain to link up the circular loop and tap into the ready and growing supply of sustainable polymers coming from the innovative waste reprocessing sector.

Designers keen to embrace these sustainable values when developing new products can access a growing range of materials that are readily available as good quality recyclate. A great place to start sourcing recycled materials is with the many plastics recycling companies listed within the BPF’s Members Directory:

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