Applications of the 5 R’s in Product Safety

By Kristyn Jones, Account Executive

As the need for a more sustainable planet grows, Insight is taking a leadership position on the charge towards a better future. In the wise words of Mattel’s Yvonne Lievens, “Each product, its packaging and the resources we use to make it means an opportunity to care for our planet.” Today we’ll dive into the 5 R’s–Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle–and how they apply to the consumer products industry. Looking at the 5 R’s through a quality/safety lens, some are not feasible for us at present because they compromise the safety and integrity of a product.

REFUSE: Learning to refuse waste in the supply chain poises us for success.

To begin, the easiest way to be more sustainable is to refuse excess waste from the start. The mantra of Insight’s Brand Activation business unit is to “Design With Intent,” which always includes a cross-functional program analysis to design out waste. In addition, we produce products and packaging primarily in North America, which eliminates global shipping and decreases our overall carbon footprint. Even with these processes in place, however, there are many ways for Insight and our partners to improve. We are focused on making these improvements to our design/sourcing strategy in the next few years:

  • Be mindful of the materials available to us and choose the “right” plastic. Using plastics like HDPE and PET when possible will allow for greater recycling potential than hard-to-recycle plastics such as PVC (vinyl) or PS (polystyrene). There are also some recycling businesses that are really focused on one type of plastic such as HDPE or PET for example.
  • Utilize post-consumer resins when possible. This can be tricky to manage with quality/safety in mind, but not impossible (even when manufacturing toys–a category with the most stringent regulations and requirements).
  • Choose recycled, recyclable or bio-based material solutions to support our partners’ sustainability goals (and our own).

REDUCE: Reducing the use of wasteful and non-recyclable products/materials results in less going into landfills and the associated negative impacts.

  • The purpose of packaging is to protect a product from damage. There is a threshold, a balance, to reduce as much packaging as possible without allowing damage. The carbon footprint balance gets worse if there is lots of product damage and the product is returned for replacement or rework. Insight’s goal for every product made is to reduce as much packaging waste as possible while keeping enough to protect the product. Our meticulous design considerations and industry expertise enable us to curate this perfect balance.
  • One example of Insight’s commitment to “reduce” is our research & development efforts to qualify a series of bioplastics. Using fillers like wood composite, agave, barley and starch allows us to reduce the petroleum in our plastics by 10%-50%, while still maintaining the integrity of the plastic AND its recyclability. We typically produce millions of units for one program, so the 10%-50% reduction of petroleum is a vast improvement.

REUSE: Single-use plastics have created a throw away culture by normalizing the “one and done” mindset.

One way to try and combat this is through creating premiums that live beyond the package. For toys, there is an informal circuit where toys are handed down within the family. Toys are usually of high quality, so they often outlast the development of a child. Because of this, toys are reused often. Unfortunately, businesses cannot formalize and encourage reusing products as most toys will not have their packaging anymore, where the safety language is.

Every product has a different experience with different use/wear. It is also important to note that regulations evolve, so products that were previously compliant might not be anymore. Secondhand products are not controlled anymore by the manufacturer and there is no way to communicate safety instructions through the C2C cycle.

REPURPOSE: Looking at “repurpose” through a quality/safety lens, this is another “R” that we usually cannot encourage.

Quality/safety experts around the world test products to certain standards based on a product’s intended use. We also often test a product’s foreseeable use, a.k.a. the creativity of the user in a setting outside of the intended use of a product. As safety experts can only guarantee the safety of a product based on the testing that was performed and the intended/ foreseeable use, our industry often does NOT recommend re-purposing a product as it can occasionally cause a safety hazard.

Of course, there are exceptions. We can often make suggestions on how to re-purpose packaging and paper products, as those are low risk. Turn your cereal box packaging into a storage container for art supplies or a house for your toys! These are easy, low-risk ways to re-purpose a product.

As with everything else, there is a delicacy and a balance involved in the relationship of sustainability vs. product safety.

RECYCLE: There are many ways to approach recycling in manufacturing, although it does come with challenges:

  • Different regulations/legislation, chemical requirements
  • Country-specific requirements
  • Different lifecycle environments
  • Lack of global harmonization of recycling symbols
  • Difficulty of knowing precisely what’s coming in and how to warranty the safety of the product/recycling materials used
  • Inability to identify the composition of recycled material–many of the plastics have confidentiality on the composition of the product

Even with these challenges, Insight is dedicated to finding ways to be better.

  1. At our HQ, we provide education to our employees about how to recycle, what can be recycled, etc. As part of our curbside pick-up program, our local recycler accepts #1-5 plastics as well as #7 plastics. We have designated an area to collect other “special” recyclables, such as electronics, batteries, grocery bags, ink cartridges, fluorescent lightbulbs, and more. These items are then brought to various recycling facilities that are set up for these unique items. We encourage the use of this special on-campus recycling center for both personal and professional use.
  2. On a larger scale, we are proud to offer many recycled materials from our North American supply chain.
    • Recycled resin: Using recycled resins is often a very difficult task in toys due to the very strict chemical limits for children’s products. With virgin resin, it is easy to control what your toy is made of. Insight has a U.S.-based solution for toys made of 100% recycled resin that complies with ALL federal and state regulations.  
    • Recyclable film: often used in our bandoliered format for auto-insertion, we have a recyclable plastic film available for any overwrapping or packaging needs.
    • FSC certified content for packaging and paper products

In the instance that we cannot make a product from recycled materials, we do our best to make our products recyclable. The easiest way to accomplish this is by using just one material for the whole product. 

All in all, the 5 R’s are not a one-size-fits-all for every manufacturer.

The feasibility of each R depends on the type of manufacturer, the industry standards, and the target consumer, to name a few. While there is not a clear solution for sustainable manufacturing, there are an infinite number of possibilities for improvement.

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