Packaging that generates less pollution tends to use fewer materials, or even a single material, making it easier to recycle. How does this fit in with luxury codes? For a successful transition towards mono-material packaging, there are compromises to be made and technological, logistical, and marketing obstacles to overcome, according to a Special Report from our sister magazine Formes de Luxe.
Mono-material packaging is a brand new concept in luxury. And it’s a pretty revolutionary one for a sector based on the notion of abundance, one that equates diverse materials with diverse aesthetics, and fresh sensory experiences, originality, and brand image—the exact opposite of uniformity. And yet, today’s challenge requires coming to terms with a variation of the “less is more” paradigm that now dominates luxury brands’ marketing approaches.
Mono-material design is a tenant of eco-packaging because it ensures better recyclability. However, there is no legal framework to guide these solutions. “There are no regulations that mention mono-material design. There’s not even an official definition of recyclable packaging,” says Gilles Swyngedauw, Vice President of Sustainable Development & Innovation at packaging manufacturer Albéa. “Will this be clarified in the next update of the European directive on packaging and packaging waste? On the other hand, it has been established that used packaging must be incorporated into flows of recycled materials generated by collection and sorting systems, but without disrupting them.
To enter a given material flow, packaging must typically contain at least 50% of that material— even if this is not always made clear in the recommendations. The definition of mono-material is also open to debate. What about metal alloys, for example? Or consider a cardboard cup with a fine layer of plastic: according to the European directive banning single-use plastics and France’s Agec law, the cup falls into the plastic category. But when it comes to recycling, it’s the other way around—it’s considered a paper product!”
The most important criteria is the existence—or absence—of efficient recycling channels. In France, these exist for glass (in this case, a pioneering material), paper-cardboard, aluminum, and steel. Plastic recycling is complicated by the wide variety of resins in use. “The rigid recyclable plastics are PET, PE, and PP. The only soft recyclable plastic is PE,” explains Valentin Fournel, Director of Eco-design Services at Citeo. “R&D is underway to create recycling channels for trays and lids, PS in yoghurt pots, and flexible polypropylene. However, there are no channels planned for PVC and layered plastics. Last February, Citeo and its subsidiary Adelphe launched a call for projects to encourage manufacturers serving the cosmetics industry to find recycling solutions for pack-aging that isn’t currently recyclable, like samples or plastic bottles with pumps that contain metal components, among others.”
Don’t forget decoration
When designing packaging, it’s crucial to use materials that can be recycled, while also reducing the use of inks, varnishes, and other decorative additions to a minimum. There are several reasons for this: these substances are often made from petrochemicals and represent an additional source of pollution and are also likely to contaminate the future recycled material and to disrupt the sorting process. For example, when opaque or very dark glass passes under an optical sorter, it is mistaken for porcelain or stoneware, materials that cannot be melted down and that must be buried. To keep glass from ending up in a landfill, decoration should be translucent metallization or transparent gradated varnishes. But what about when an opaque container is needed to protect fragile formulas from UV rays? Bormioli Luigi offers comparable protection with its latest anti-UV treatment, which can either be applied as a transparent lacquer or integrated as a filtering pigment into the glass itself.
The use of other materials for purely decorative reasons is also frowned upon. “Consider a galvanized aluminum plate sourced from a distant country and glued to the glass bottle,” remarks Thomas Riou, CEO of glassmaker Verescence. “This will make the product hard to recycle, increase costs, complicate the supply chain, and increase the product’s carbon footprint, which will be higher than an organic screen-print carried out on the same site. I believe in monomaterial design. That’s why we also encourage our clients to use glass caps; they add weight, but not so much that it becomes problematic. Of course, plastic is required for the insert, but only a small quantity.”
Paper packaging’s Achilles heel is lamination. This process of applying metallized plastic film to cardboard in order to create a shiny finish has long been indispensable in luxury, but it turns packaging into a non-recyclable, multi-layer object. According to Wauters, which operates two laminators, the process still has its fans. However, the printer recommends replacing it with precision cold stamping carried out with an offset press and only on specific areas, a process that leaves no residual plastic on the cardboard.
Verpack, meanwhile, has replaced lamination with metallization transfer: the metallic particles present on the film are stamped onto the cardboard. This poses no problem for recycling because the quantity of metal is so low. The film itself is then recycled for future metallization. At Groupe Verpack, the shift to mono-material packaging quickly took different forms: molded cardboard or cellulose stabilizers as opposed to thermoformed versions, tab closures as opposed to magnets, paper ribbons instead of fabric, finishes that use embossing versus ink printing and gilding, etc. And the “windows” cut out of boxes to showcase products are no longer covered with transparent plastic—a fundamental change in cardboard packaging.
Multi-material & multi-functional
It’s much more complicated to adapt packaging that is by definition multilayer. Arcade Beauty, specialized in cosmetic soft packs and doypacks, knows a little about this: the company has already developed mono-material PE and PP multi-layers free of the aluminum that would otherwise impede recycling. “No other material provides as effective a barrier against oxygen and water as aluminum, which also ensures a three-year lifespan for formulas, with almost no weight loss,” says Claudie Guérin, the company’s CSR Director. “Our customers wonder, then, if this three-year period is really necessary, or if they could put an expiration date on products with a shorter lifespan. That being said, the film has to be tested for each project; its performance will depend both on the kind of formula and on the ratio between the pack surface and the volume of product contained within. A single-resin solution would work for our 3D Pouch doypack or for a small sample pack containing a powder, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for a small packet of a liquid product.”
For decades, each material has been assigned a specific role in packaging, according to its individual characteristics. Today, it almost seems as though companies are hoping for an “all-purpose” raw material. This is an unrealistic expectation, even for ever-adaptable cardboard, as Bruno Lefebvre, Sales Director at Verpack, explains: “Foam and thermoformed inserts/ stabilizers did the job well, and it’s not easy to replace them with ribbed cardboard to protect, say, three bottles in a coffret. We’re continually racking our brains and finding workarounds, and sometimes we find a solution.”
Making gradual progress
Faced with these technical hurdles, one possible solution would be to develop packaging with discrete components that could be dismantled and sent to separate recycling channels. This would require consumer involvement. “The design could encourage them to play along,” says Marcial Vargas-Gonzalez, Director of Strategic Innovation at Quantis, a sustainable development consulting firm. “Look at Alpro soy yoghurts: the PP pots are lined with a printed cardboard sleeve that you remove by tearing along perforated lines. This sorting action would probably be less spontaneous in cosmetics, if only because most people only have one trashcan in the bathroom.”
The market is currently divided between the need to make progress in developing mono-material solutions and the need to avoid precipitating change. First, appropriate recycling channels have to be established, and they need to have the capacity to absorb new volumes of waste without the risk of bottlenecks. Then the question becomes: is recyclability virtuous along the entire chain? “Be aware of possible undesirable rebound effects,” comments Vargas-Gonzalez. “Choosing a heavier mono-material packaging could have a greater environmental impact because of production and transport. Analyses that consider various aspect of eco-design are useful in that they provide a holistic vision.”
The issue can get complicated when it comes to plastics, as a representative of the Pacte National sur les Emballages Plastique en France (French Plastics Pact) points out: “France’s Agec law calls for a ban on single-use plastics starting in 2040. So is it worth investing in the 100% recyclable plastic packaging demanded for 2025 by the same law? Wouldn’t it be wiser to shift to another material altogether? Mono-material is an improvement, but it’s not the whole story. We have to work on reducing packaging, and on increasing bulk channels, reuse, and refills, and on reinventing things, without falling back on short-term conservative positions.”
Important challenges abound in this part of the circular economy replete with threats and opportunities.