Mono Materials and What the Textile Industry Can Learn from the Packaging Industry

Mono Materials and What the Textile Industry Can Learn from the Packaging Industry

A Short Introduction and General Thoughts on Packaging – How I Became Aware?


It’s a freezing cold day and my face skin is dry and craving for relief. I run to the nearby cosmetics shop in search for the perfect moisturizer, spending about 25 minutes to consult with the shop assistant about what the best care for my skin type is. She tells me I need age protection at 24, which is a totally irrelevant fact to our topic that I just remembered. I walk back home, finally happy with my purchase and think of the pampering I’m about to give myself into.

I unwrap the box from its plastic packaging and throw that away. Then I open the box, read everything on it carefully and place it for cardboard recycling. Now I’m left with the glass, containing the precious liquid, displaying the exact same information as the cardboard box.

I start to wonder why the product even has the other two wrappings, putting only the glass on my cosmetic shelf. I’ve been asking myself this question about many products I purchase and thought about many possible solutions. When I was a child, we used to go to the butchers and the chubby happy lady from the neighbouring shop would wrap them in rough paper and nothing else, so my mum would cook them the same evening. Around the time I was in middle school and lived in the countryside, a friendly neighbour would deliver milk in glass bottles and then collect them on his next delivery date. How did we spiral so far away from this simple life when fresh products were cherished and we didn’t need an average of 3 packs for moisturizer or toothpaste?


What is the Current Standard for the Packaging Industry?


Things have been slowly going in this direction for many years now but with the pandemic situation, packaging requirements have spiraled completely out of control. Recently, due to hygienic requirements, many products, especially food, have been preferred wrapped in additional individual packaging. To give a mere example, 41% of US consumers bought predominantly packs of individually-wrapped candy in 2021, according to Candy USA’s recent study.

But the pandemic is far from a main reason in packaging increase in the last years – with the rise of big store chains, the transportation, storage and preservation of food have become a top priority for the food industry. Two thirds of food waste is currently due to spoilage so improvements to transportation and storage are constantly being made, most of the times at the expense of looking into sustainable packaging options. As food and packaging account for more than 45% of solid waste in the US, the choice between keeping food products from spoilage and increasing waste in landfills is becoming more difficult for big store chains.

In the past years, online shopping has made consumers much more aware of the pending packaging topic since they are now dealing with the product delivery waste that has previously been handled by the store personnel.

Keeping products fresh is not the only reason for recent packaging increase. Luxury companies are clear that sustainability must not come at the cost of aesthetic and technical properties of their packaging since it accounts for the visibility and recognition of their brands. Colors must not be compromised because they largely dictate the choice of product based on the product category – for instance, cooler tones indicate freshness when choosing oral hygiene products or drinks, warmer colors, on the other hand, are associated with richness in flavour in coffee, chocolate, spices, and other such products.

Since the aim of the European Green Deal to make all packaging recyclable till 2030 was announced, there have been many propositions on how to optimize the lifespan of a certain product packaging or how to reduce the amount of packaging needed. Even though, theoretically, plastics have been recycled since the 1970s, the process of sorting them and melting them down is very expensive and energy-intensive and most types of plastics are still extremely difficult to sort in a specific category or reused. Therefore, the lifespan of most recycled material is only an extra use or two before the material starts degrading.

There are additional efforts to reduce the amount of packaging waste in landfills, such as using compostable materials (cellulose or woold pulp, for example) for them, which would not release any harmful chemicals during decomposition. Another efficient way to deal with this problem is using biodegradable packaging, which decomposes by itself with no need of soil or any other particular environment. Those processes, of course, cannot take place if another material is present or the product wrapping is composed out of multiple materials.

While some non mono-material product packs are easy to separate (such as glass bottles and paper labels), others cannot be recycled or reused due to the difficulty and cost intensity of their separation – take, for instance, paper with metallized finishing. In this case, only a small amount of the product can be recovered and reused and most recycling facilities would not accept such products – this makes them practically non-recyclable. So, what makes products more recyclable and more suitable for re-using?


What Are Mono-Materials and How Are They Used?


As the name suggests, mono-material products are made of a single material. Due to their components, all constructed of the same material, their recycling is much easier, faster, cost- and energy-efficient. That’s why, producing mono-material items is considered to be a big step towards circular economy, which encompasses not only a closed loop of repairing, reusing and recycling, but also reducing the toxicity and volume of any raw materials in production.

There are still challenges in the way of mono-material products also beyond the initial difficulty in the design phase. Mono materials also suffer a great decrease in quality when mixed with other recycled products from different origin.


Why Does the Packaging Industry Need Mono-Materials?


Mono-material products are an especially good approach for the packaging industry, where reducing waste is essential. Even though it is not easy to combine multiple technical properties of different protective materials in a single mono-material product, some companies have already developed new wrapping options, comparable to plastics and foils. On the market, there is already fully recyclable metallized paper, which can both keep the visual appeal of packaging, and provide technical qualities such as protective barrier against vapor, grease, light and oxygen, which is a potential use against spoilage in the food industry.


What Can One Learn from the Packaging Industry in Times When Products Are Disposed of Just As Quickly As their Packaging?


With textile products becoming cheaper and cheaper, even more items from the fashion and apparel industry end up in landfills, which is a problem designers and consumers have been battling for ages. Is there something fashion can learn from packaging design in order to keep up with the changes in trends and make up for decline in material quality?

The current standard of textile production requires most products to be made out of various blends of materials providing different benefits, which might support the technical functionality of garments but has no regards to the entire lifecycle of products. As a result, textiles end up being down-cycled in their ‘next life’. Home textiles and clothing, for instance, end up being downgraded to insulation material, blankets, upholstery, industrial rugs, etc., even if the raw material is of high quality.

In order to take full advantage of the virgin material quality, this open-loop recycling has to be transformed into a closed-loop process. This means that materials taken from a certain product should be recycled into a similar product, in this case that would be textile-to-textile recycling.

As an ideal lifecycle of a textile product, we would regard the following loop:

Source –> Design –> Wear –> Pass –>  Patch –>  Recycle

In order to successfully implement the above loop, however, recycling and sorting technologies need to be improved and advanced material identification technology needs to be available. Having this in mind, it is currently difficult to facilitate the recycling of a t-shirt that is composed of 99% cotton and 1% spandex, so a product like this would end up in a landfill.

Switching the production to mono-material, on the other hand, would encourage the correct recycling of materials whilst keeping the original ‘virgin’ quality of the materials used and simplify product care.

Implementing mono-materials has to happen early on in the product creation process, since more than 80% of each product’s footprint is being determined already in the design phase. This can provide a creative constraint, which, however, often leads to product innovations and changes the way designers and consumers think of a product.

Here is an overview of different creative constraints that have stimulated designers to come up with new inventions and facilitate recycling and circularity.

Design for Disassembly is a process in which the initial idea of a product is determined by the need of material separation once the product is discarded or in need of repair. This manner of production is still very challenging design-wise and economically but helps consumers appreciate and care for their products. It encourages the user to understand the product design and structure better and replace any damaged parts. There are already multiple examples of objects, designed for disassembly that showcase the innovative results of this approach. Such example is the Repair-it-yourself shoe by Eugenia Morpugo, where the sole is mechanically fastened to the rest of the shoe, which makes it easily replaceable when worn out. Further examples are the Fairphone and TAKT‘s furniture range, where the products can be disassembled and parts of them – replaced.

Modular Design is an approach, based on a similar principle, which allows users to manually change or upgrade parts of their product. Although such items are thought to be overly complicated for users in some cases, modularity allows devices to change over time and builds a stronger connection between user and product, offering a bespoke experience. Phoneblocks is a good example of modular design, aiming at reduction of e-waste by providing an ever-changing mobile device.

Another method of creative constraint for the sake of sustainability is designing for re-use. This could mean re-use of the entire products or of their materials. This is one of the most widely discussed and unpredictable design approaches, as it requires a level of commitment from the company, as well as the end consumer. In order to facilitate re-using, deposit systems need to be installed, so that the ‘dead’ products can be collected and brought back to life. In such cases, the so called harvest maps are being used to track available resources and if possible use them in their original form. Studio Basurama offers a wide range of examples on how to repurpose and re-use what one might consider waste and how to give it higher value.


Case Studies of Fashion Brands, Product Design and Architecture.


Ever since the cradle-to-cradle approach became a trailblazing guideline for the textile industry, many fashion and apparel conglomerates have started taking small steps towards circularity. Even though there is still much to learn about the most effective way to produce mono-material products, there are positive examples to guide designers forward or to help study the trials and errors of the journey to zero waste.

Pleats Please by Issey Miyake is one of the mono-material projects, dating far back in time, when circularity wasn’t as popular as it is these days. It is an entire collection of garment pieces, created from a single yarn, making it extremely easy to sort and re-use.

A smaller brand, Tierra, has recently started producing their jackets out of a single material – polyester. This includes trims, threads, and fabric, which means the entire jacket can go through its lifecycle and then be completely recycled without decreasing the virgin material’s quality.

Helly Hansen is another sportswear giant who produces mono-material jackets, enabling garment-to-garment recycling. The garments in their Mono Material Line are entirely made out of polyester, even insulations are composed of 100% recycled down-feel PFC-free polyester.

One of the best examples for mono-material production comes from industrial design and dates back to 2007. It is the Nobody chair by Komplot Design and Hay – a molded felt chair, made from 100% polyester, composed of recycled PET bottles. It represents an empty chair cover without an actual chair, which has taken the properties of a piece of furniture. What is remarkable about this product is the complete lack of additives such as resins, glue, screws or any other reinforcements, which makes it great for future recycling.

The Bamboo Sports Hall by Chiangmai Life Construction is another incredible mono-material project, built in 2017 for Panyaden School in Chiangmai, Thailand. The building, constructed entirely out of bamboo covers an area of 782 sqm and hosts futsal, basketball, volleyball, and badminton courts and an automatic stage. Its design is based on the lotus flower and allows for natural ventilation and insulation without the use of other materials for this purpose, not even steel reinforcements or any other connecting materials. As a result, Panyaden’s Hall’s carbon footprint is zero as it absorbs more carbon than the amount used for transportation and material treatment during the construction phase.

Jumping back to the apparel industry, the mono-material quest of sportswear giant Adidas has been ongoing since 2019. Its so called FutureCraft.Loop experiment aims to produce, test and further develop a 100% recyclable sneaker. Their UltraBOOST DNA LOOP trainer is part of the Made to be Remade system of selling and returning for future production. It is made entirely out of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) and constructed using heat rather than glue. In November 2019, material from the first generation of the trainer was used to assemble the second generation of UltraBOOST DNA LOOP. With the concept launch of this project, a huge step in the sneaker design and production has been made to enable other designers in this industry to follow, creating amazing innovative products out of what would have been just waste.


Next Steps for the Textile Industry and Product Design.


It is safe to say that many steps have been taken towards a more sensible distribution of resources and energy. It is, however, becoming apparent that many of those mechanisms are, at this stage, still theoretical. A lot of the principles, mentioned above are not difficult to achieve, they simply require another way of thinking about product lifecycle, longevity, trend balance and media representation. This being said, this is not an effort to be made purely from companies’ side – the collaboration between brands and end users is essential to keep the balance between sustainability and disposability, between marketing and true sustainable innovation.





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