Harnessing power of design to realize circular society

Ms. Omi, Ms. Kodama, and Ms. Suzuki who participated in the project holding reusable packet for delivery in hand.

Nowadays, most used plastic packages are collected and sorted for recycling. But society faces the long-term issue of how to use recycled plastics. To deal with this issue, Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. (DNP), which has developed and provided eco-friendly packaging for many years, is now working on upcycling*1 – reusing plastics to create products of higher quality or value than the original ones. In July 2020, the company launched a project in collaboration with inhouse and outside designers with the aim of expanding the use of recycled plastics generated in Japan to circulate this resource in society. The editorial department of DNP Features here presents excerpts from discussions between three key players involved in this project.

  • How can we expand the use of recycled plastics?
  • Designers explore ideas through extensive discussions
  • Making reusable packages for delivery with recycled plastics
  • Desire to make things we want leads materials to evolve
  • *1 The concept of upcycling is getting a lot of attention as a form of sustainable recycling, which transforms waste materials into new materials or products of greater quality by adding new value, while taking advantage of their original properties.

Participants in the talk session (from left in the photo above)
Atsuko Omi
Marketing Strategy Headquarters, Innovative Packaging Center, Life Design Operations*2, DNP
Aya Kodama
Art director and CEO, Bullet Inc.
Erena Suzuki
Planning Headquarters, Innovative Packaging Center, Life Design Operations*2, DNP

  • *2 In April 2022, Life Design Operations has changed its name from Packaging Operations. The interview was conducted in July 2021, but the organization name has been revised to the current one.

How can we expand the use of recycled plastics?

Question: How did this project start?

Atsuko Omi: DNP has long been producing eco-friendly packages, but faced with the growing problem of marine plastic pollution, I began to think we needed to deal with the issue of how to circulate plastics after using them.

When they are recycled, however, plastics of various colors and materials are melted and mixed. This results in a material with a dark brown color. Properties such as strength, heat resistance and hygiene standards are compromised.

The use of recycled plastics, therefore, has been limited to pallets (platforms used to hold goods for shipping) or buffer stops. It is rare for the general public to see recycled plastics in daily life.

So, in July 2020, we decided to launch this upcycling project by harnessing the power of design to discover the untapped value of recycled plastics. Seven companies, including DNP, and 17 inhouse and outside designers are taking part in this project.

Pellets recycled from plastic packages (grains of plastics inside the left bottle). Cost and technological factors make it difficult to remove coloring agents. Even if they are formed into plates, the dark brown color remains.

Erena Suzuki: As a DNP designer, I am directing the packaging design of food items, as well as designing product-marketing materials.

When I heard about the project, I certainly wanted to take part. That’s because when I joined DNP’s Packaging Operations (current name: Life Design Operations) I was taught that we will end up producing garbage unless we have a clear understanding of our obligations and responsibilities.

Impressed by these words, I have always considered the environmental impact when designing packages. So, joining the project was a great opportunity for me.

Aya Kodama: I design many food packages. I have always thought that I had to show a sense of ecological responsibility in producing packages, but I wasn’t able to translate this into action. I felt guilty about this. When DNP contacted me about joining the project, I immediately said yes.

Omi: I joined the project as a facilitator serving in its secretariat. First of all, I wanted to share information with people taking part in the project about the current state of recycled plastics. I felt it necessary to understand this basic information before thinking about designs with other participants.

During the COVID pandemic, we invited an Environment Ministry official to speak online about Japan’s plastics problem.

We also held an online tour to a recycling plant through a linked-up relay from our secretariat staff who visited the plant. While leading the project, I made many new discoveries.

Photos show DNP staff members visiting a recycling plant in August 2020. Project participants gained first-hand experience of seeing how a recycling plant operated, which helped them to identify environmental issues. They also held lively discussions after being briefed about the technological aspects of plastic recycling.

Q:How did you feel about the current state of recycled plastics after joining the project?

Suzuki: After the first briefing, I thought that this would be a hard nut to crack.

I thought there was a way to use recycled plastics when I first heard about the project’s objective. It is because the color of the recycled plastics is a natural earth color, which was better than what I’d heard.

But through the briefing, I learned that the whole industry has a negative image about recycled plastics. It's quite a challenge to get companies to use them.

Simply making something stylish won’t solve the problem. Since a huge quantity of used plastics is reprocessed every year, it is essential to come up with a way for society to continue using them.

I gave a lot of thought to how to clear these two hurdles.

Kodama: As Ms. Suzuki said, I felt it is no good to merely make something that looks wonderful with reprocessed plastics just to show it off.

We need to think not only about ways to make people be aware about recycled plastics as a material and the current issues involving them, but also how to design products that can be used for many years.

After listening what people working at the recycling plant had to say, I realized we needed to think about ways to fundamentally solve this problem for future generations.

Designers explore ideas through extensive discussions

Q: What kind of activities were you engaged in after learning about the current state of recycled plastics?

Omi: We regularly held meetings where we presented ideas for upcycling used plastics, and improved them after receiving feedback.

Then we narrowed down these ideas with the aim of making prototypes. We then talked about how to improve the prototypes. That was our workflow.

In December 2020, we held an online presentation to wrap up the first phase of our activities, where we introduced eight ideas to many viewers who were invited from DNP and other companies.

Presenters talk about proposals to use recycled plastics during an online presentation.

Suzuki: In my work as a designer at a company that makes packages, I look for the best ways of attaining goals that are defined based on requests from our corporate clients. That’s the main part of my job.

In this project, however, we set our own goals. It was a new experience for me. It also meant a lot to me to have in-depth discussions aimed at getting to the bottom of the problem.

Kodama: It was stimulating to see various approaches proposed by each designer on how to use recycled plastics. The scope of proposed approaches was greater than I had expected.

I felt comfortable in a working environment that allowed us to present and think about ideas freely.

Omi: During the online presentation, we heard unique ideas such as making analog records with recycled plastics and trays for school lunches as a part of environmental education.

It was a big success in that it helped to change the image of recycled plastics for upcycling, as shown by feedback from online viewers who told us that they wanted to use them all.

From among the ideas, we chose a reusable packet for delivery proposed by Ms. Suzuki and Ms. Kodama. We are currently fine-tuning this idea with a view to producing the first product to come out of this project.

A reusable packet for delivery, is based on one of the ideas generated by the project. Various types of prototypes were made, such as envelope, four-leaf clover and speech balloon shapes.

Making reusable packet for delivery with recycled plastics

Q: Would you please explain the idea behind the reusable packet for delivery?

Suzuki: Goods we buy online are delivered in paper bags or cardboard boxes that eventually become rubbish. We thought this should be changed. So, we tried to address the issue by using recycled plastics.

Actually, during a brainstorming session, Ms. Kodama and I had separately presented an idea for reusable packages for delivery. I proposed to her that we work on the idea together.

I thought that we needed to think about two points – making something that’s easy to use and that you want to have – when translating the idea into products. So, we divided up the tasks. I am in charge of thinking about the products’ usability or functions, and Ms. Kodama is in charge of the “emotional” aspects of product design.

Kodama: For my part, I studied which materials and shapes are good for delivery packages. For example, the sheet used for the packet is made of recycled plastics and rubber, which is soft and feels like leather.

It has an unusual yet comfortable texture that makes people want to touch it for a long time. When we held it in our hands, Ms. Suzuki and I thought, “This is it.”

We proposed such designs as heart and speech balloon shapes that people can choose depending on their mood, in addition to versatile square shapes. The idea was to make people feel happy and amused when they receive them from a delivery person.

Ms. Kodama talking while holding a speech balloon shape of reusable packet for delivery

Suzuki: I focused mainly on their functions to identify issues that needed to be addressed. My concerns were whether such packages can be actually used for delivery; how to collect them after being used; what if we put an electronic tag on them, and so on. Then I asked various departments of DNP to think about their feasibility and scheme to develop them for practical use.

I thought the reusable packet for delivery wouldn't become widely used unless using it could create added value. Merely replacing current envelopes wouldn't be enough.

I came up with various ideas, such as using electronic paper as an invoice that makes it easier to display or rewrite mailing addresses, as well as introducing an app that tracks packages.

Kodama: Wanting to use it because it’s easy and wanting to use it because it’s fun – we thought it was important to realize both these aims in products.

Omi: The reusable packet for delivery received an especially positive response during the presentation. Many viewers were impressed by the package, because besides its eco-friendliness, it can lead to solutions for various issues that are difficult to deal with in daily life.

Suzuki: Introducing delivery packages that can be used repeatedly, rather than just one time before being thrown away, was a key factor in changing the negative image of delivery packages to a positive one.

Ms. Suzuki talking while holding a four-leaf clover shape of reusable packet for delivery

Q: What are your future plans for the reusable packet for delivery?

Omi: We’d like to look into how it can be used for a regular inhouse delivery service between offices. We realized that there is such demand after receiving feedback after the presentation, and by interviewing courier companies.

It is easy to set up an inhouse system to collect reusable packages. In addition, we were able to picture how they are used, such as switching the address on electronic paper with the push of one button when a round-trip parcel is being used.

We decided to study the optimal material, shape and scheme for practical use, while actually using these packages within the DNP Group. Repeatedly conducting feasibility studies by using them ourselves can develop a good product, we thought, thus speeding up the process that will result in the product’s practical use.

Some of the reusable packet for delivery prototypes being considered for use in the inhouse delivery service at DNP’s Life Design Operations sections, as part of feasibility studies.

Desire to make something makes materials to evolve

Q: So, this project continues. Reflecting on the project so far, what have you become aware of?

Omi: While working on this project, I felt that the level of understanding of recycled plastics within DNP has gradually deepened.

For example, the Life Design Operations has plants that make plastic containers and cups for confectionary by molding. But in the past, they were hesitant about feeding recycled materials into the machines on hygiene grounds.

This project helped the people working in the department became interested in recycled plastics. A team mainly comprising young workers is now considering tests to make containers and cups with recycled plastics.

In addition, one of our Living Space Operations-related sections has asked us about using recycled plastics in building components. So, we now have a wider inhouse circle of people who have a positive view of upcycling. I am pleased to see that the process of the project’s information-sharing with DNP employees is changing the image of recycled plastics­­ from negative to positive.

Kodama: The peculiar color of recycled plastics is inevitable due to the mixture of various colors of the original containers. It’s a color that results from mixing various colors, or a natural color that returns after being different colors.

I think when products made of recycled plastics start to play a wider role around us, we’ll be able to understand how plastic products we use circulate in society. And the negative image of recycled plastics will improve as they become a material that we use in our daily life.

Suzuki: After the presentation, a person from a recycling company said a good approach would be to come up with design ideas first and then develop materials based on them.

Until now our approach has been to develop materials first and then think about design ideas. But we can reverse this process through this project, by developing materials based on design ideas. If that happens, I think the range of new products will broaden.

Omi: As Ms. Suzuki said, if we have an idea for making something, we can use our ingenuity to push ahead with material development, enhancing strength and barrier performance against oxygen and water vapor, which have been a weak point of recycled plastics.

Enhanced functions lead to the birth of better products. We’d like to create such a positive cycle in the long term.

Kodama: When recycled plastics meet the power of design, it connects us to places and people with which we had no contact. That leads to all sorts of possibilities. I am deeply impressed by that.

I teach at the design department of a university. I thought it would be wonderful if students could participate in a project like this one.

It is the essence of design to think outside the box and not be bound by the current situation or stereotypes. I hope to see new and exciting ideas coming from young designers who will play a key role in the future.

Q: What is future prospect for the project?

Omi: In fiscal 2021, new designers joined us to come up with ideas for the project’s second phase.

While working on the reusable packet for delivery, we learned that we can’t merely replace what we have with products made of recycled plastics. We need to look into how we can solve social issues by making products with such materials.

Ms. Omi talking about future activities for this project

Suzuki: I’d like to do some fine-tuning to realize the commercialization of the reusable packet for delivery. Previously, people thought recycling is indispensable but troublesome, but now they take it for granted.

I think people will have more positive impressions about recycled plastics. I’d like to broaden our activities so that more people will learn about these materials.

Kodama: I hope society will gradually and sensibly shift toward sustainability.
I think this project will lead to all kinds of possibilities.

Omi: The people working together on this project have experienced something like a chemical reaction that leads to new, creative ideas that can have a big impact on society. Our activities will continue, and we would like like-minded people from inside and outside the company to join us. Please let us know if any readers of this article are interested in the project.

  • * Publication date: July 12, 2021
  • * Last updated date: May 16, 2022
  • * DNP department names, product specifications and other details are correct only at the time of writing. They are subject to change without prior notice.