Ensuring at the development phase that a new product is easily recyclable is one of the most effective ways of making it environmentally sustainable. And if the product can also be made from recycled or bio-based plastic material as part of environmentally optimized production, then we’ve made significant progress on its environmental profile.
Here at Nolato, we take the view that a product’s environmental impact should be a significant factor during development and manufacture. In simple terms, there are three key choices to be made at the very start of a product’s life cycle, that determine whether or not it can be regarded as environmentally sustainable throughout its entire lifespan. There are important discussions to be had with regard to the material, design and production process; discussions that Nolato always involves customers in when looking at a new product.
Choice of material is at the very core of a product’s environmental profile. With the explosion in the use of eco-friendly materials in recent years, Nolato makes a point of encouraging customers to use the highest possible proportion of recycled plastic. Where this is not practical due to regulatory requirements or specific elements of the product’s functionality, the alternative is to use bio-based plastic materials.
Fossil-based plastic materials can only be used where it is impossible to use recycled or bio-based material, for example in certain medical devices.
“Both recycled plastic material and material made from biological sources, such as sugarcane, have a much lower carbon footprint than plastic made from crude oil,” explains Patrik Ingvarsson, President of the Medical Solutions business area’s development unit in Europe.
“Nolato has carried out meticulous testing with ‘green’ plastic made from sugarcane, including in the production of pharmaceutical packaging, and found that it is not only kinder to the environment but for many types of products it also more than satisfies the requirements of both Nolato and the customer.”
“Designing new products so they are easy to recycle is extremely important. Even if you’ve chosen a material with a low carbon footprint, it can hardly be regarded as environmentally sustainable if it is difficult or even impossible to recycle,” notes Patrik Ingvarsson.
In principle it’s about ‘Designing for the Environment’, which means either making the product from a single plastic material – a monomaterial – or, where this isn’t possible, designing the product so it’s easy to dismantle.
“The best approach to take depends on the kind of product,” says Patrik Ingvarsson. Packaging or single-use products for health care can be made from a single material, to make recycling as easy as possible. Whereas a product with a longer lifespan that requires a combination of different materials to achieve the desired functionality can be designed so that the various materials are easily separable once the product has served its purpose and needs to be recycled.
“One possible solution may be to design the product so that two materials snap together instead of being welded or glued, making it much simpler to recycle.”
However, sometimes you have to opt for more complex solutions, for example when it comes to a medical device that has to be completely sealed.
“This poses interesting challenges for the designers,” observes Patrik Ingvarsson. “And in medtech we have the specific challenge of designing a product for recycling when it contains components that should not be recycled due to the risk of spreading infection.
“In this situation we need to make sure we design the product so that the risk element can be safely managed, while the rest can be easily recycled without posing any risk.”
Efficiency has always been at the heart of the production process for Nolato, particularly since efficient production is often beneficial for the environment as well. The foundations are laid early on in the design phase of new products by ensuring that the production aspects – Design for Manufacturing – are continually in focus during development work.
“Nolato has an advantage here in that we support our customers both during the development phase and the manufacturing phase for new products,” explains Patrik Ingvarsson. “The product itself must be environmentally sustainable, but we also make sure we minimize energy and water consumption during production. We choose renewable energy sources where possible, and always aim to make sure all transportation is low carbon, not just through the choice of logistics solution but also by optimizing the packaging of whatever is being transported to customers.”
Efficient production also involves using as little material as possible. This starts at the product design stage as well, but in production too we must make sure we work efficiently to reduce the amount of waste.
“There are interesting solutions available for this,” continues Patrik Ingvarsson. “For example, using a closed loop system to recover excess material immediately during the injection molding stage. But as always, you have to think it through properly first, so the process isn’t environmentally sustainable at the cost of the desired level of product quality.”