Design for Sustainability

Is plastic sustainable? Without a doubt. For instance, when it’s recycled. Or when products are designed to last as long as possible. But this demands both knowhow and determination – to which the Freudenberg Home and Cleaning Solutions Business Group has made a precise pledge.

Plastic has a somewhat tarnished reputation. But not all plastic is made equal. Single-use products that land in the trash after just a few minutes are, of course, harmful to the environment. Yet no-one would object to an operating table made of easy-to-clean plastic that stands in an operating theater for years on end. The same principle applies to cleaning tools and equipment. “We look at the entire lifecycle of a product,” says Norbert Weis, Head of Consumer Development at Freudenberg Home and Cleaning Solutions. “A product with a four-year lifecycle has a considerably lower carbon footprint than a single-use one.”

Design is the defining factor here. Long before the manufacture of a product, Weis is already thinking about its look and asking how best to put it together. He carefully considers the features and the materials that are needed. The research and development expert is one of roughly 70 employees in R&D. For the expert, design is more than mere functionality: “We design for sustainability,” he says.

We look at the entire lifecycle of a product

Norbert Weis, Head of Consumer Development at Freudenberg Home and Cleaning Solutions

Broom bristles made from PET

Design has many aspects to it. Ease of recycling is just one. “There are enormous differences between recycling materials. How easy the material is to recycle, whether you can collect and sort it and then bring it back into circulation,” says Weis. This is why Freudenberg’s Vileda brand often uses thermoplastic polypropylene. And it’s also why since the 1990s the brand has avoided using questionable materials such as PVC. Often containing harmful plasticizers, PVC releases toxic fumes when incinerated. So, instead of PVC, for more than a decade broom bristles have also been made from a more suitable plastic – namely PET: “We tap into our network at Freudenberg and benefit from the Group’s knowhow in spunbond materials.” Microfiber cloths made of 100% recycled PET that have the same performance standards were also recently launched on the market.

“Just as important, however, is that the consumer understands how to dispose of a product,” says Weis. If the best recycled material ends up in the wrong trash, it’s of no use. In an international comparison, countries such as Norway, Sweden and Italy are better positioned than others and offer different waste trash for different plastics. “We put the issue on the agenda as part of our Fit for Circular initiative,” says Weis. In some countries, the information on the packaging has already been adapted to help the customer understand the legal requirements. But all the more crucial is that, wherever possible, products do not consist of composite materials. Put simply, it’s important to avoid combining different materials in such a way as to later on render them inseparable at the plant.

Freudenberg, for instance, has changed the material composition of the “Mocio” mop’s foil packaging. “The previous packaging was difficult to recycle,” says Weis: “In total, we accumulated 39 tons of material in a year.” The material now used, made of LDPE 30 micron foil, reduces both mass and weight to 22 tons – and, being a mono-material, is easier to recycle. A very impressive example of the enormous positive impact materials can have. As part of its commitment with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Freudenberg has also made a public announcement of its intention to make greater use of mono-materials.

Ultimately, sustainable design means designing products so that they do not easily break, last as long as possible and ensure that the consumer really enjoys using them. “This is a very important aspect for us,” says Weis. “All the more so, as since the pandemic began, many consumers have been spending a greater amount of time at home, are cleaning more often and are prepared to pay more money for brand products.” The buckets, in particular, are therefore designed to be especially robust and durable, from the “TURBO” to the “Ultramat” and the “EasyWring”.

When it comes to sustainability, packaging is equally important: “Currently, we’re switching to polyethylene foil because it’s even better for reuse in global recycling systems,” says Weis. Consumers and retailers are now more aware and specifically ask for sustainable packaging.  “We set ourselves the goal of producing half of our packaging from recycled material by 2025,” says Weis. By 2025 at the latest, all packaging should then be recyclable, reusable or compostable.

Weis’ team recently conducted a detailed analysis of its own portfolio to identify other products that could be designed to be even more sustainable. After all, the issue is also one of technological development. “There’s a lot of research being conducted worldwide in this field. For example, when it comes to sorting by type,” says Weis. He’s keeping a close eye on the “Holy Grail 2.0” research project, in which more than 130 companies and organizations are working together to use modern digital watermarks that enable homogeneous sorting.

Homogeneous recycling raw materials

Since recycled materials are only useful if they are actually contamination-free, homogeneous materials are also key. “Polyethylene, for example, mustn’t contain any PVC waste, which is exactly what we don't want in it for a good reason.” The more skilled at identifying and sorting raw materials the recycling plants become, the more worthwhile it is to zero in on certain materials. Manufacturers like Freudenberg Home and Cleaning Solutions can help by focusing on sustainable design from the outset.  And this, in turn, means that such manufacturers are also better able to obtain those homogeneous recyclates along the way. A cycle - in the truest sense of the word.

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