Ecodesign, in search of the perfect container

The weight of the cardboard in a cookie box is not decided by chance. Nor the composition of a bottle of detergent or a tray for fresh food. The characteristics of these containers are designed to optimize the protection of what they contain, transport and commercial appeal. Added to these variables is one that is becoming increasingly important: the environmental impact, a footprint that is not limited to its manufacture, but extends throughout its entire life cycle. Its reduction, experts say, goes largely through ecodesign.

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“Ecodesign is taking into account environmental factors in the conception of a product”, defines Pedro Zomeño, head of projects at AINIA, a technology center that studies solutions to improve commercial packaging. The fundamental ones, according to Zomeño, are two: the cost of raw materials and the management of the final waste. “When we talk about ecodesign, we must bear in mind that the packaging is there to protect the product and meet legal requirements. A minimum packaging will always be necessary to, at least, solve the informative and protective function”, explains Jorge Serrano, manager of companies and ecodesign at Ecoembes, the organization that manages the recycling of rubbish from yellow and blue containers.

Until now, the general tone of ecodesign has been to slim down the packaging. According to data from Ecoembes, in the last 20 years companies have taken more than 45,000 measures to subtract 500,000 tons from the weight of these objects. “This system has reduced the consumption of raw materials and also subsequent waste, and distribution has been optimized,” says Serrano. “But it is a procedure that is already close to the limit. The containers already have the minimum thickness. Other options must be explored.”

Materials bio-bio

One of these alternatives involves the search for more environmentally friendly materials. At TheCircularLab (Logroño), an Ecoembes laboratory around the circular economy, a team of engineers is working on a plastic bio-bio (biobased and biodegradable) from vegetable waste. A material that, at the end of its useful life, will decompose into CO2, water and biomass. Also, its creators point out, it will be recyclable through composting.

“We can generate, for example, a container of potato starch, but we have to measure very well how many resources we are using,” explains Zomeño, “so that in the total balance we do not spend more than necessary.” Still, producing any container carries an environmental cost. “There are no miraculous solutions from a technical point of view. The container that fulfills its conservation function and then, poof!, disappears without a trace has not been invented. Every material carries a residue that must be managed,” Serrano understands. For him, the key is to think about specific applications for these new materials: “Compostable packaging makes sense in the fast food industry. Being in contact with food, managing that waste stream would consist of composting everything as organic material”.

A single cigarette butt can contaminate up to 50 liters of fresh water. Images of this and other waste that is dumped daily in parks, lakes and beaches throughout Spain

Other studies focus on analyzing which combinations of materials facilitate the recycling of a container. “There are mixtures that help with the subsequent management of the waste,” says Serrano. Others, such as multilayer plastics, supermarket potato bags, are more complex, “something to take into account to increase their future sustainability,” he adds.

case by case

One of the complications of ecodesign is the measurement of the impact of a container with respect to the function it fulfills. “It’s difficult to evaluate. A beef fillet that can be on the shelf for up to three weeks thanks to the material it contains. How do you label that packaging? For what it costs the environment to produce it? Do you also take into account that a good Percentage of sales is achieved because the food remains intact and is not thrown away prematurely?” Zomeño states, clarifying that, although you have to nit-pick in each case, there are more obvious situations. “For example, perfumes are a clear example of overpackaging. You don’t need all that glass to hold 20 milliliters.”

To try to weight this environmental footprint, and as if it were an energy efficiency label, members of TheCircularLab, in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute, have developed a methodology, called PackCD, which analyzes four factors of the packaging: its life cycle, the facility to separate the waste in a sorting plant, its recyclability and its functionality. “Ecodesign is not at odds with the economy. If you optimize the processes you can save money”, says Zomeño, who understands that with the new European guidelines, which require companies to make their products more sustainable, all the actors will accelerate the pace. “It is a fixed point on the agenda of any company”, closes Serrano.

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