When shampoo manufacturers started switching from glass bottles to plastic in the 1960s, they weren't thinking about how to make the new containers recyclable. And so the bottles that are now ubiquitous in drugstores, holding everything from lotion to mouthwash, have always been a pain for recyclers to handle.
One designer wants to replace them with a bottle that's simple to turn into something else—or to refill.
"Right now, it's such an old, outdated process," says Marilu Valente, a Munich-based designer, who also runs a startup making a smart recycling bin. "At the moment, everything is made and produced the same as 20-30 years ago. We keep buying the same products with the same packaging. I really think that now it's time for a change."
For years, because bottle caps are made out of a different type of plastic than the bottle itself, recyclers told consumers to throw the caps out. Now, most modern sorting facilities can grind up an entire bottle and turn it into tiny flakes that can be sorted by weight, so PET plastic and polypropylene, the material used for caps, can be automatically separated. But because most people haven't heard this, most caps still end up in the trash. Labels pose another problem; some new shrink-wrapped labels can't be melted off, and end up ruining equipment.
Instead of using a cap, Valente's bottle has a narrow dispenser that can be plugged into the side of the bottle when it's not in use, a little like a cork. It's supposed to look different than anything else on the shelf.
"Packaging design now isn't really valued," she says. "The actual shapes aren't high quality design. That's why I took out the cap, so you would value it more than a standard package that you throw out when you're finished."
Ideally, the bottle would be refilled and reused many times before it's recycled—assuming stores start selling things like shampoo in bulk. "My vision for the future is that I enter a shop with my own packaging and just refill my shampoo and shower gel," she says.
"This is kind of a start towards this final goal. We still need to change our mindset towards something like this, where you don't just go to a shop and buy a whole package, a whole new product, but you buy just the content inside the packaging."
The bottle also opens at the bottom, so it can easily be cleaned out. Because the soft sides can be squeezed, it's possible to get out all of the product inside, unlike a typical bottle (with something like lotion, one experiment found that as much as 25% was left when consumers tossed out the container, after futile attempts to get the last drops out).
The biggest challenge for Valente's design is the fact that standard plastic bottles are cheap and bottle manufacturing plants already have equipment designed to make products exactly the way they are now.
"You'd have to find a whole new process to mass produce such a container," she says. "That means maybe coming up with new fabrication machines that are not standardized at the moment. But I believe that with all this democratization of the manufacturing sector, we are moving towards something that's different." In smaller quantities, the bottles can be 3-D printed from bioplastic.
Valente hopes to find investors and start by selling the bottles at new zero-packaging grocery stores.