So far, it has been nothing but the wishful thinking of numerous plastics recyclers that recyclability is taken into consideration directly from the very start of a product’s life cycle, at the design stage of a product. A new project is aiming to make this dream a reality.
Be it a toothbrush, power cable sheathing, or multi-layered food packaging, many plastic products cannot be recycled. This is the scenario, for instance, when products are composed of many materials that cannot be separated at all or only unsatisfactorily.
Just 16% of plastic waste made in Germany is also recycled here. This figure is cited by the Plastikatlas 2019 published by the German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Most of the plastic waste is thus burnt in waste incineration plants to produce energy or is used as an alternative fuel.
Design and Recycling—Worlds Apart
Since July 2019, the Chair of Business Administration and Business Information Systems at Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg in Bavaria, Germany has been working on the goal of “making more plastics recyclable” together with the German Plastics Centre SKZ and two partners from the Bavarian plastics industry. Their project is sponsored by the Bavarian State Ministry for the Environment and Consumer Protection.
The partners aim to increase the share of recyclable plastics by decreasing the number of material components. “We focus on the product design stage because the recyclability aspect has largely been neglected by designers so far,” stated Jan Werner from the SKZ, a member of the Zuse society of independent research institutes. “Designers and recyclers live in two completely different worlds; there is no exchange of information.” This is why designers frequently pick materials that are very hard to recycle.
Digital Platform Provides Information about Materials
The project currently plans to unite these two worlds together. To accomplish this, the researchers want to develop a software platform which offers information on the recyclability of various plastics and material combinations. This will allow designers to consider criteria such as resource efficiency, functionality, and recyclability against each other and select better materials based on this.
A JMU team around Norman Pytel and Professor Axel Winkelmann is in charge of developing this platform.
We want to provide digital tools for product developers to help them make better material choices—always with the aim of increasing the recyclability of plastic products.
Norman Pytel, PhD Student, JMU
Part of a Bavarian Collaborative Project to Increase Resource Efficiency
The DIMOP project handles digital multi-criteria material selection to improve the recyclability of plastic materials. It is sponsored by the Free State of Bavaria within the scope of ForCYCLE II, a collaborative project for more resource effectiveness in the Bavarian economy, particularly in SMEs and handicraft businesses. The project was launched in July 2019 and is scheduled to function for three years.