Design determines the degree of sustainability
Design decisions also hold the key to environmental sustainability: a product is more eco-friendly the less material and energy is consumed, the more renewable instead of fossil raw materials are used, the longer it lasts and the greater the capacity for it to have a second life after its original life cycle. Such design features are no longer just optional choices that position a product in the market – increasingly, they are required by law.
The packaging market has come the farthest with developing requirements. Material selection, weight, recyclability and reusability serve as criteria for charges and quotas, and even bans in some cases. Having been criticised from many sides, the packaging market is undergoing significant change: new marketing terms such as #plasticfree are established and many manufacturers of branded goods are looking for non-plastic alternatives. The wasteful use of plastics combined with low recycling and high discard rates have created a great deal of heat in the packaging market. The toy industry is also coming up with new ideas in relation to the use of plastic, as its unparalleled versatility make it the most popular material in the industry.
Packaging is just the beginning
Ecodesign is not a new concept. What is new, however, is the drive to see environmental design criteria applied to as many products as possible. "Jute not plastic" is probably the oldest slogan in this regard. Although vague in terms of content, it is more or less exactly right in its emotive description of the circumstances. It intuitively conveys the desired benefits: organic material sourced from nature, made from renewable raw materials and not from crude oil like most plastics so far. The product (jute bags) is durable, repairable, washable and often reusable. It is non-toxic and there are no disposal issues. In contrast, the successful model of the plastic bag, which has been used billions of times, is now subject to reduction targets and bans all over the world. In the packaging sector, plastics can be replaced quite easily by paper or cardboard in different kinds of usage but even there, too, plastics offer much more in terms of functionality. Toy manufacturers will find it easier to come up with alternative packaging solutions rather than, for example, replace the materials used for dolls and figures, plush fabrics and construction elements. The best way to replace plastic is to use eco-friendlier plastic – in other words, recyclate (recycled plastic) and bio-based plastic. But how can companies ensure actual environmental gains from these alternative materials?
Ecodesign guidelines matter
The most accurate way to achieve this is through a comparative life cycle assessment, but this comes with a high degree of cost and effort. There are simpler ways that also lead closer to the desired outcome. Weight is always a good indicator of environmental burden, and less is often more. Another rule of thumb is to use recycled materials instead of new. The positive impact of recycling, or the use of recyclate to be more precise, has a magnitude of 50 percent. If recycled paper (fibre) or plastics are used, the environmental burden can be reduced by around 50 percent. It is also beneficial if the product is easily recyclable, as this is the only way to obtain high-quality, reusable recyclate. The design must therefore incorporate as few different materials as possible or at least materials that can be easily separated. The same is true of renewable raw materials – provided they are sourced from sustainable cultivation.
These rules of thumb are no substitute for a comparative life cycle assessment of alternative product designs that quantitatively analyses the entire life cycle at different emission levels. Nevertheless, you cannot really go wrong if you follow qualitative ecodesign principles, like "renewable and recycled are better than new materials produced using crude oil" and "the more durable the better", along with guidelines such as "reduce CO2 emissions, enable reuse". It also helps to have clear and, if possible, prioritised goals, such as "durability first, recyclability in practice, no problematic ingredients". You do not have to be a material or sustainability expert to succeed when it comes to ecodesign. There are also good information sources with advice, like the European Commission or Diez Office.
It’s all about the implementation
The more changes that are made to the use of materials, the more complex the questions are. Not every answer is simple or even correct in the end. As long as the same material is used on the same machine to make the same product, the tasks are manageable. Bio-based and/or recycled components offer considerable improvements in carbon footprints, at least compared to new items made entirely from fossil raw materials. Such swaps – called a "drop-in" solution – bring immediate environmental benefits. Over the coming years, the availability, supply (volumes) and price of alternative materials should improve. Drop-in products made from bio-based or chemically recycled plastics are creating new, sustainable prospects for the future. In addition, these products don’t hold any safety risks imaginable with the use of components from mechanical recycling.
Strategic opportunities of the new environmental awareness
Companies that, for example, want to pivot away entirely from PVCs, harmful plasticisers or poor recyclability have bigger challenges to overcome. The change in materials needed has far-reaching consequences. The entire process chain has to be examined, with countless changes made to processes. Although not an impossible task, this does require staying power and the necessary investment funds.
Companies can also use their creativity to devise completely new product ranges with which they can move into new areas. A great deal of experience can be gained from launching an eco-friendly series as a first step. Toy manufacturers can already make it clear to designers and suppliers that an ecodesign approach is a requirement and not an option. The lessons learned can be gradually incorporated throughout the entire portfolio.