Loowatt’s Design & Lifecycle Engineer, Fernanda Costa, shares her insights on eco-packaging.
Fernanda leads the development and design of Loowatt’s polymer toilet refills, processing and product usability and lifecycle. Fernanda has 13 years in design and commercial development of novel packaging systems and products for large consumer clients including TetraPak, McDonalds and Pret A Manger.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced when designing sustainable packaging?
The biggest challenge is specifying materials for packaging that have great mechanical properties whilst having the best credentials at an affordable price.
The definition of sustainable packaging can be interpreted in many ways; for instance, considering plastic bottles, if the goal is to reduce carbon emissions and use of resources, using post-consumer recycled plastics is always better than virgin plastics. But it will still produce plastic, which ideally must be recycled again. Sadly, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling (but this is a complex and global infrastructure problem - one that deserves its own post! For today, check out this troubling news piece).
Another issue is understanding industry jargon and conveying that jargon to consumers; some plastics (PET, PE) come from sustainable sources (e.g. sugarcane) but will not biodegrade; the plastic is still plastic but doesn’t come from oil, and it looks absolutely the same. As a designer and a consumer, I am aware that due-diligence whilst doing the weekly shop can be exhausting.
Are there any companies or products that are leading the way in sustainable packaging?
It is refreshing to see innovation such as laser etch labeling in fruit and veg, which was first trialled by Swedish supermarket group ICA. It totally removes the need for any added wrapper or label, reducing the amount of material sent to landfill, which is in fact much more attractive to consumers who care about over-packaging.
I’m a big fan of mushroom packaging as a 100% biodegradable replacement for polystyrene which can also be used for insulation boards and furniture products. It’s not mainstream yet, but it can be in the future.
The disruptive Ooho! water capsule is made from a seaweed membrane which is edible, eliminating the plastic bottle altogether – a perfect solution for localised water distribution at public events. Although they are in early stages of development, start-up 'Skipping Rocks Lab' show a lot of promise.
What is the Loowatt refill and why is it so special?
The most difficult aspect of making a waterless toilet is transporting human waste. Loowatt’s refill, combined with the sealing technology, make this possible in a clean and efficient way. Just a few grams of biopolymer film—compared to thousands of grams of water—will do the same job. So the Loowatt refill is the core consumable that makes our toilets work; plastic film replaces the water in the Loowatt toilet by acting as a medium to carry the waste away from the bowl, containing the waste safely.
How has life-cycle assessment informed the design of Loowatt’s refill specification?
Our aim has always been to close the loop and support resource recovery. We have been focussed mostly on generating resource from waste through anaerobic digestion, in which human waste is transformed into energy and the Loowatt refill decomposes into nutrient rich bio-solids as microorganisms break down the polymer. Looking ahead, the world of polymer films is constantly and rapidly evolving. Recent news about the terrible plastic gyres in the oceans are helping to spur the ongoing development of biodegradable and marine degradable plastics, and the pressure to better manage all plastic waste.
At Loowatt closing the loop is our core company value. The material spec of our polymer film refills goes hand in hand with the local plan for their resource recovery. For example, in some contexts, locally sourced compostable film might be more appropriate than imported anaerobically digestible films; in others, you could substitute a locally sourced recyclable film. It’s simply critical to guarantee that all of the material has a reasonable production footprint and is being treated in closed-loop systems.
In London, Sadiq Khan plans to roll out a network of water fountains and bottle-refill stations to help reduce the use of single-use packaging, such as plastic water bottles. What are your thoughts on this strategy?
I think its fantastic! And a big challenge, as it will not serve the interests of the profitable bottled water industry. It will require re-education and changes in behaviour in order to make it work, but who wouldn’t like to save a few quid and help reduce plastic waste?