I studied the factors that influence the design for recyclability of labeled food plastic packaging in my master’s thesis for UPM Raflatac. As a Food Economics and Consumption student from the University of Helsinki, I was keen on figuring out the recyclability of food packaging, as food is an extraordinary item to be packed. Furthermore, food safety is an overarching priority, and UPM Raflatac food packaging labels happen to meet all food labeling regulations.
Another scope of the thesis was plastic, as it can prevent food waste and is thus a widely used material for food packaging. The end-of-life of plastic packaging is also intriguing. If the packaging is designed to be recyclable, new packaging materials can be made of the recyclate. Even though materials such as PET, PE and PP can be recycled, I see recyclability more as maximizing the value of the recyclate in regards to sustainability and business. On the other hand, if the recyclate cannot be used to create new packaging, it can be used in other products, such as flowerpots or industry pipelines that last for hundreds of years. UPM Raflatac is commissioned to the smarter use of plastics, so it was great to learn more about it.
The thesis project started in autumn 2021, and I finished the thesis in spring 2022. Working on the thesis was independent work that was conducted remotely due to the pandemic. As a master’s thesis is an academic work sample and requires academic desk research, in the beginning, I read academic journals and studied the literature regarding the recyclability of packaging. Later on, I also studied reports provided by my thesis supervisor. We also met on a monthly basis and went through my findings and questions. Overall, the work was independent and flexible, and the months were gone fast. Working on an intriguing subject was fun, and I considered myself lucky to work with UPM Raflatac, sharing my values and points of interest.
The results show recyclability is not the only aspect (or even the most important aspect, which is protecting the food) considered in the food packaging design process. Thus, open communication plays a big role. There is no one person in charge of recyclability, and the maximization of the recyclate is too far from the company’s and designer’s scope. Consumer behavior also plays a huge role, and intelligently designed packaging markings can guide the consumer intuitively to sort the packaging correctly. The persons working with packaging design can use the following GIAFE-checklist created in the thesis:
- Gain packaging and label material recyclability awareness
- Identify the technical and economic aspects with the client company
- Acknowledge the consumer’s role as the sorter of packaging waste and include visual and textual guidance to the packaging
- Follow design guidelines published by your local recycling authority and client company
- Ensure open communication and share your knowledge with your client company and other people on the process