• Gary Robinson

Synaptic Connections Newsletter 2019 Week#30


July 22, 2019 www.Synapticpackaging.com Image -Vintage Photo, 35mm, Australia

Week#30 of 2019

Good morning!  I hope you enjoyed a nice weekend.  That sure was a hot one.  The image above felt appropriate during this summer heat.  This is a vintage photo taken by my grandfather in Australia.  I'd estimate it as mid-1970s, yet still a great photo. 

Last week we focused on Sustainable innovation with mono-material, waste, feed-stocks.  That is an amazing opportunity and one that will be a catalyst to help us transform to a bio-based economy.  Continue to monitor the news feed each week in Synaptic Connections to find case studies of this innovation.

Today, let's have a look at some of the more immediate, and daunting challenges for us to ReThink Waste.  As we introduced a few weeks back, the biggest challenge with innovation in waste is contaminates.  Contaminates degrade the engineering functionality of the product, and lower the economic value.  This is often associated with the term 'down-cycling'.

The elimination of contaminates is the economic and operational back-bone of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF).  When you put your recyclables to the curb, they get delivered to the MRF.  The MRF uses some very expensive, and highly sophisticated equipment to try and sort your recyclables into mono-material streams as best they can.  The more successful that automated equipment can be, the higher the value of the material to which the MRF can sell, and the more likely you are to see that recycled material being used back in a new product.  The economic value is typically driven by a statistical quality standard with an allowable percentage of contaminates.  The lower that contaminate level, the higher the value.  The higher the contaminate level, the lower the value, ultimately being considered trash and being diverted to a landfill.  Again, contaminates are the core driver for the economic sustainability of recycling.

I've been fortunate to have spent a lot of time visiting and meeting with MRFs and there are some common things that really give them challenges in their ability to run an efficient business.  Let's have a look at some of those.  If you are a consumer reading this, then the opportunity for you is to avoid using these items.  As a packaging engineer, the opportunity is to find different ways to build packaging systems that do not use these materials.


  • Small Components - straws, loose caps, pods, etc.  These items fall through the sorting equipment, or are too difficult to sort at high speeds.  Most commonly, they end up in a landfill, or leaked into the environment.

  • Flexible, Multi-Layer Laminate Materials (i.e. Bags & Pouches).  These items do not get sorted by a MRF in curb side recycling and have little to no recycling value in traditional streams.  Further, the flexible plastics can jam up the sorting equipment at the MRF.  There are emerging technologies in this space (Ref. June 2018 Synaptic Connections), however, for now it is safe to say they are not getting recycled unless you process them through a customized drop off program, typically at a sponsoring retail store.

  • Glass - A material that is highly recyclable, however many MRFs are no longer collecting the material.  The primary driver is economics.  Glass is heavy and the MRFs pay $/lbs for collection.  The end value of recycled glass strains the economic balance for the cost of collection.  Further, the broken glass can damage the expensive equipment at the MRFs. Glass recycles, so if you choose to use it, you'll most likely need to do a location specific drop-off.

The most likely things to get collected and recycled through a MRF today include:

  • Aluminum and steel

  • Paper and corrugated

  • PET Plastic (soda bottles)

  • HDPE Plastic (milk bottles)


As engineers and product managers, here are a few very simple things to think about when designing system for recycling.

  • Use mono-materials whenever possible and seek to use the materials listed above

  • If multi-materials, coatings, or laminates are needed for functionality, then seek to do so in a way that will not degrade the recycling process.

  • Seek to make labels and other components removable or of the same material as the base substrate

  • Seek to either eliminate small components, or explore mechanical opportunities to integrate the smaller pieces with the larger body of the packaging system

  • Seek to use Post Consumer Recycled (PCR) materials in your new product/ package or design!


The last point there is super important, so I'd like to re-emphasize it.  We need to find ways to use more PCR in our new products so that we can make the economic cycle of recycling turn.  We are seeing some brands take a leadership role in this effort and we applaud them.  Without buyers of PCR, then the entire economic cycle is broken and we need to face the fact that it is not recycling, rather wish-cycling.  This is a very relevant topic and one that we will explore as we dig deeper into the strategy of ReThink Waste.  Next week, we will explore some of the recent implications of the China National Sword and the Basel Agreements.

Have a great week everyone!  Thanks for your time and interest.  I hope you found today's discussion insightful.  Enjoy the news articles below.  


Packaging Sustainability//


ReThink Waste//


Emerging Energy//


The purpose of this newsletter is to stimulate innovative thoughts and constructive dialogue through the lens of sustainability.  New subscribers can send an e-mail to the link below to sign-up. 


Contact Us

gary.robinson@synapticpackaging.com