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The Shape of Things to Come

Contact Author Andrew H. Dent, Material ConneXion
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  • Just because someone buys a product, does not automatically mean that it will be solely his responsibility for what happens to it at the end of its life.
  • Extended producer responsibility is gaining importance with the increased costs and scarcity of raw materials and considerations of recycling/waste issues. This is going to be a major part of future supply chain management thinking.
  • Expect more restrictions and more consumer-driven boycotting of certain plastics or additives.
  • The additional demands that sustainable practices put on materials means that, more than ever, the whole life cycle and total impact of material choices needs to be understood.

This was written on the same day as an unprecedented show of collaboration from the newspapers globally regarding climate change. Fifty-six papers in 45 countries, published in 20 different languages, have joined an initiative that asks for leaders at the Copenhagen summit to put aside political differences and come to an agreement on carbon emission reductions in the next 20–50 years.*

Regardless of the short- and long-term outcomes, it is clear that there is massive concern for the current level of production and usage of all things, particularly the energy consumed in manufacturing these things.

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Some might consider the next few years as a crisis point for the consumerism born of the 20th century. Energy is the major bugbear in this discussion, but materials and products play a very significant role as well, particularly when considering the consequences of such issues as the chemicals used in modern materials. The materials used in packaging and formulation of beauty products presents a particular challenge in this regard.

Appearance is so personal and so important to one’s sense of self, but what exactly are consumers willing to sacrifice to save the planet?

Sustainable design, the attempt to right the wrongs of industrial production by also considering the effect on human and environmental health, has gone through myriad iterations to get to its present state. However, we, as a whole, are relatively certain about what is necessary in order to produce a sustainable product, and how to reduce the environmental impact of its production, use and disposal.

Sustainable design becomes less a design problem and more an engineering and process problem, with the analysis of the best design conducted at the computer software level through life cycle analysis (LCA). Material and form decisions can only be made with due deference to the impact on the outcomes of the LCA; thus creativity becomes limited by the numbers resultant of this analysis. Will this stifle creativity? Will it end up with every company producing the same shape and type of product? Of course not. Design has always had to work within price limitations, so why should limitations in an effort toward sustainability be any different? It just requires more creativity from the designer, and that can never be a bad thing.

What does this mean for trends in sustainable design and new materials? It means that most are not design trends at all—they are additional restrictions on design (remember, this is not a negative thing). Here is a preview of a few important topics in Material ConneXion’s 2010 Material Technology Reports—Sustainable Design: Materials & Methodologies Driving Innovation and Advances in Materials for Consumer Products, an analysis of that which will continue to shape the way in which products and packaging are designed.

Recycling, Recovery and Re-use in Materials

High Quality Recycled and Recyclable Materials

Recycled materials are subject to the same standards as virgin materials. Designers are asking for bright white recycled papers, biodegradable plastics with high clarity, alternatives to polystyrene and compostable secondary packaging. The question remains: Does appearance need to be sacrificed to produce a sustainable product? A number of manufacturers have answered a resounding “no.” Milliken’s Millad produces high clarity polypropylene; Pace Industries’ PS-Absolve is an extruded, easily printed, yet compostable polystyrene sheet; and French company SGD introduced the first 100% recycled glass cosmetic containers in late 2008. These are but a few examples of the wider movement Material ConneXion is seeing toward attractive sustainability.

Increased Take Back Programs and Extended Producer Responsibility

Just because someone buys a product, does not automatically mean that it will be solely his responsibility for what happens to it at the end of its life. The idea of extended producer responsibility has been around for some time, but it is gaining importance with the increased costs and scarcity of raw materials and considerations of recycling/waste issues. Computers, TVs, office chairs, carpeting and DVDs are already taken back in one form or another, why not beauty packaging? Whether for legislative or legal reasons, to reclaim raw materials or simply because it works well as a marketing story, this is going to be a major part of many companies future supply chain management thinking.

Just because a product can be recycled, doesn’t mean it will be. Brand owners should consider the following: Are there basic steps that can be taken to ensure greater recyclability? How often can a material be recycled? Can a recycled material be recycled again? When is it viable to use a take back program?

Toxic Materials: What Can’t Be Used Now or Later

Increased restriction on toxic or potentially harmful chemicals

A recent issue of the New York Times carried an opinion piece on the possible increased cancer risk to humans as a result of the myriad chemicals they are exposed to on a daily basis through a number of daily, basic interactions.** Blanket statements such as “avoid XYZ plastics” go beyond the consideration of particular application and play to the idea of “if I am not sure, better be on the safe side and avoid this.” This general move away from trusting chemical companies suggests a seismic shift in consumer attitudes—one that doubts that scientists always know what is bad for them.

Endocrine disruption, chemicals that act like hormones in human bodies and affect the endocrine system to cause hormonal and developmental problems, continues to be a concern for many scientists and consumers alike, and it is clear that all of the potential hazards of many of the widely used plastics and the additives to those plastics are still unknown. Expect more restrictions and more consumer-driven boycotting of certain plastics or additives.

Legislation is becoming stricter and is changing faster in the area of potentially toxic materials and additives. There are wide variations in this type of legislation from country to country, and even more from state to state in the U.S. What is the next wave of restrictions and bans beyond Europe’s Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) and California’s Prop 65, as well as others?

Biopolymers Come of Age

You’ve followed the biopolymers story with avid interest—the claims, the successes, the failures. Whether you are a believer in this type of solution as the answer for future resource dilemmas or not, biopolymers are here to stay and are only going to be used more widely. What needs to be understood is that one single biopolymer cannot be a solution to all the needs, and it will take time to create the range of plastics from plants that can fulfill all the performance requirements of today’s beauty packaging. The rise of durable bioplastics that have higher performance but are not necessarily biodegradable/compostable is a welcome sign, with applications now surfacing in eye wear (Pearlthane Eco), sportswear (DuPont Hytrel RS) and running sneakers (Arkema Pebax Rnew).

The Future Combination

The additional demands that sustainable practices put on materials means that, more than ever, the whole life cycle and total impact of material choices must be understood. A combination of reduced consumption of toxic materials, increased use of renewable resources and extended producer responsibility is the future. Designers and producers will need to respond with creative solutions and innovative choices.

*www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/dec/06/papers-copenhagen-leader (Accessed Dec 15, 2009)

** www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/opinion/06kristof.html?emc=eta1 (Accessed Dec 15, 2009)

Andrew H. Dent, PhD is vice president, library and materials research for Material ConneXion, a global materials consultancy and library of innovative and sustainable materials.

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