View & Thoughts

Improving Plastics Circularity – A perspective on Design for Recyclability (DFR)


By Amandeep Singh and Jaycee Lim

Packaging Circular Economy Solutions team at Borouge 

Global consumer trends are driving brand owners and the packaging industry to shift towards a more circular model of resource consumption – compared to the traditional linear model prevalent for the last few decades. A circular model enables consumers and industries to minimise resource wastage from a product life cycle perspective.

While there is currently a huge focus on building better waste management practices and infrastructure, it is also important to focus on design, as thoughtful design can play a critical role towards achieving circularity – the way a package is designed will provide the pre-requisites for achieving more efficient recyclability.    

At Borouge, we are committed towards achieving a Zero Waste Plastics Circular Economy. We work closely with our value chain partners to develop solutions and concepts that enable fully recyclable package designs.

Through extensive technical experience in polyolefin design, conversion, sorting and recycling processes, Borealis – one of our shareholders and also a leading provider of innovative plastics solutions – has identified 10 guidelines that will help brand owners and convertors design and create packaging that meet accepted recycling standards globally.

These guidelines incorporate an understanding of the recycling process from the package design stage, keeping in mind the end-of-life aspects after the package has fulfilled its original intended use. These guidelines also support the value chain to make design choices that ensure suitability of the packaging for sorting and recycling, all without compromising the performance needed to protect its content.

We call these the “Design for Recycling (DFR)” guidelines.

DFR can maximise recycling rates for all kinds of plastic packaging because it makes separation and re-processing more efficient, ensuring the steady supply of high-quality recyclates. The following guidelines will help our partners and customers navigate the relatively new and complex field of DFR.

One point to note is that the recycling industry is also evolving with emerging technologies, waste stream evolutions, and new sorting and reprocessing capabilities. It is best to regularly consult trade and industry bodies in your regions to stay up to date on the latest developments.

1. Use PE or PP whenever possible for mono-material packaging bodies.
Mono-materials are more easily and widely recycled than multi-material packaging. Generally speaking, the most efficient and widespread collection, sorting and recycling systems are currently in place for PE, PP and PET.

2. Use transparent (unpigmented), or white, for the main body of the pack in as high a percentage as possible. 
With existing technologies, it is difficult, costly and sometimes impossible for recyclers to remove pigments from the pack body. In instances where the pack needs a light barrier, a white body is the preferred option.

3. Design the package in such a way that it can be fully emptied after use. 
If the content of the pack cannot be fully emptied, the residue contaminates the material, making the recycling process more expensive and produces an inferior recyclate.

4. Use compatible and separable combinations for polymer types, barrier layers, dyes and adhesives. 
Minimising incompatibilities produces a recyclate with better mechanical properties and more recyclable into higher end consumer packaging. For market segments that require incompatible resins to meet application requirements, it is necessary to design the package to be easily separated from the PP / PE recycling streams during the washing process.

5. Use aluminium for barrier layer only when it can be easily separated from the main pack. 
Aluminium as an inseparable barrier layer will be an issue in the recycling process. If used, efforts should be made to ensure that aluminium foil can be separated.

6. Follow specific density guidelines when selecting pack components, including removable labels. 
In the recycling process, polyolefins are sorted and separated by density in a water-based float sink system. This cleanly separates waste streams according to type, such as PE, PP etc. Labels, barrier layers, foaming agents and fillers change the density of the polymers, leading to incorrect sorting.

7. On-package printing like labels and sleeves and should be easily separated from the main pack body, and use the same polymer and same colour as the main package. 
These components should be removable to avoid complicating and contaminating the recycling process and recyclate.

8. Use minimum package surface space for printing or labelling. 
The less space taken up by a label, the more likely the pack is to be recognised during sorting.

9. Use light-coloured, non-gassing inks for essential on-pack information. 
Inks that cannot be removed and thermally neutralised during recycling disrupts the process. So it is best to use light-coloured, non-gassing inks that are temperature resistant up to 240° C.

10. Paper and plastic used in combination on a single pack must be separated by the end user before the package is opened and used. 
Paper fibres cannot be effectively removed in the recycling process. They will cling to polymer flakes, degrade under heat and set off gasses, causing discolouration and odours, hence affecting the recyclate quality.