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Industrial experiences with Circular Product Design of Plastic Products
As part of the transition towards a circular economy, improved design of plastic products should lead to higher circularity. The research project ‘Circular Plastics’ in the North of The Netherlands has a focus on circular product development, next to focus areas on improved mechanical recycling and on chemical recycling of plastics from packaging waste. Several principles are used to reach the objective of higher circularity by better design: reduction of the amount of plastics in the products; transition towards biodegradable plastics; increased use of recycled materials; increased recyclability (for instance by avoiding the use of multi-layered or mixed materials) of the product at the end of its lifetime; new product-service approaches; value chain optimisation for reuse and recycling of products. 17 companies were selected within the region based on their use of specific materials in the products (mainly PET, PE and PP), the volumes of materials used, and/or the willingness to improve the design of products and value chains. Typical project duration is 6-12 months. The companies vary in size from start-ups to large multinationals. The companies implemented dedicated product development and value chain building projects, depending on the specific needs of each company. Analysis showed that three types of projects can be discerned: integral/new product development and product-service system development (7 companies); material substitution towards recycled plastics including the required recycling processes (4 companies); value chain organisation and adaptation including new forms of logistics (6 companies). An analysis framework is proposed to identify the measure of results of the projects as well as the factors influencing the innovation process and the level of circularity of the implemented product innovations. The project team is using dedicated action research approaches directly coupling innovation and research processes in and with the companies. Preliminary results show that readiness and dedication of most of the companies is increasing because of the experience with circular design. Product improvements by design are technical and economical feasible in the majority of the respective cases – results vary from incremental improvements to radical changes of the product. Possibilities for substitution to recycled materials are feasible, but depend on availability, quality, price and required standards of the materials. Value chain organisation is essential in most cases and requirements show that in many cases there is a need for companies that can perform services to close material loops and can produce the required quality of recycled materials – this can be done by existing companies in some cases, in others a new company needs to be established. The paper summarises the innovation possibilities for the range of products and provides an innovation strategy for the companies involved, identifies the barriers and drivers for widespread multiplication of the approaches and formulates a future research perspective on circular design of plastics. The combination of product innovation, mechanical recycling and chemical recycling knowledge for plastics provides a good knowledge platform for this.