As seen on El Empaque + Conversion

Designing for Bale Value™

Anne Johnson

Author: Anne Johnson
Principal & V.P.

In the lexicon of Design for Environment terms, Design for Recyclability is one of the many terms used in industrial ecology referring to methods that encourage the recovery of materials with a specific aim to drive informed best practices back into the product design cycle. The idea is to design products that are fit for use in recovery systems to conserve and extend their material value. Design for Recyclability can be interpreted with a different set of practices depending on the product and the material recovery system. Not all recovery systems are the same. For instance, the curbside recovery of packaging is different than the retail take back recovery of electronics. These differences are important when it comes to design. The differences in recovery systems and the ambiguity in what constitutes true recycling from the point of view of different stakeholders makes it difficult to understand exactly what it means for something to be recyclable. Is it enough to get a product in the collection bin or does it actually have to be made into another product to call it recyclable? And while myriad design guidance with high-level principles has been written over the years, rarely does that guidance look into the specifics of individual recovery systems, break it down and provide feedback to designers about the technical details of the system and define the “systems thinking” needed to ensure that products are designed to be recovered.

In trying to ensure that claims are not misleading, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does offer some guidance and definition on recyclability. However, the FTC fails to delve into the specifics of recovery systems, which is where some key design insight is. The FTC Green Guides generically suggest that products and packaging may not be marketed as recyclable unless they can be collected, separated, or otherwise removed from the waste stream through an established recycling program for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item. The Guides go on to define recyclability claims on the basis of consumer access threshold percentages to community collection programs. They also offer guidance if any component significantly limits the ability to recover an item. The FTC guidance focuses on recyclability in terms of an individual product or package but lacks consideration of the product that the MRF actually produces, a commodity bale. This is where greater understanding would help those trying to design their product or packaging for recyclability. It is a critical piece of missing understanding.

Designing for Bale Value (dBV) is a part of Design for Recyclability. It highlights the economic nature of the recovery system and the need to design for it. It focuses specifically on the materials recovery facility (MRF), a step of the value recovery chain that many designers and developers are not familiar with. The question addressed by dBV is if a product or package can be economically sorted in a typical MRF and does that package contribute to the commodity value of the bale for which it is intended. This requires an understanding of the MFR and insight on the design of an individual package in the context of its preferred commodity within the MRF.  Specifically, does a package contribute value in its intended commodity? Or, does it detract from the intended commodity value? Or perhaps there is no preferred bale or no end market.

The MRF is a critical link in the value recovery system and determines what materials are recovered, the quality of recovered materials and in the long term, it influences the economic health of the recycling system. How a package moves through a MRF and interacts with the equipment to be sorted is not well understood. Designing for Bale Value is how a package loses its identity and becomes a commodity. Through good material selection and package design, an individual package successfully travels through a MRF and ends up in a preferred bale that is desired by end markets.  However, there is also the package that loses its way in the MRF because of its form, or poor design, doesn’t get identified and gets kicked out because of a bad shrink label, the wrong coating and becomes part of the contaminant load to a bale.

Design for Recyclability has two levels – the package level and the bale level. This is some of the “system thinking” specific to packaging recovery. Designing for Recyclability occurs at both these levels and designers who want to inform their design and development need to understand how a package contributes to the material commodities that become part of the recovery value chain for end markets. Designing for Bale Value and how a package interacts with MRF systems and produces a commodity is fundamental to ensuring a healthy and economically sustainable recycling system. This is part of designing for true recyclability.