Material Flows Visualization

A custom method of visualizing the life cycle of key packaging materials was developed to support the findings of a report prepared by GreenBlue for the State of California Department of Conservation. The method provides a visual "portrait" of each packaging material, and comparison of these portraits enables rapid identification of material-specific issues. The display method builds on the previously developed life cycle icon.

Project Mgmt: L. Shoch, M. Stevenson

Art Direction: J. Pearson

Design: S. (deSocio) Fishwick

Copyright: GreenBlue 2009


The display format highlights the relationship between recycling and resource extraction. The more aluminum that is recycled, the less needs to be extracted from nature.
The display method organizes each supply chain as a squared-off loop, with virgin material entering at the upper left, waste exiting at the lower right, and material flowing to other (non-packaging) uses at the lower left.
For each material type, a donut graph is used to represent the percentage of all US packaging made from the material and the relative importance of packaging as a use of this material, relative to non-packaging uses.
For each material type, the major types of use are distinguished in the use phase. Four types of glass are used to make packaging, and their color affects their relative recyclability for future use.
While a significant amount of packaging steel is recovered for recycling, the donut graphs to the right show that steel the total weight of steel used for packaging is relatively small, and packaging is a minor use of steel relative to other uses.
Although a higher percentage of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is recovered than other plastics, the rate of recycling is still relatively low, requiring significant infusion of virgin material.
The graphic shows that relatively little HDPE (high density polyethylene is recovered, which is significant, since HDPE is used for packaging.
The graphic vividly reflects that almost no LDPE (low density polyethylene) is recovered for recycling, which means that significant natural resources must continue to be extracted from nature to meet continuing demand for the material.
As shown, barely any PP (polypropylene), for either recycling or beneficial reuse in other products. 3
As shown, a significant amount of paper is recovered for recycling or reuse, and paper has a more complicated supply chain, since the sorting stage involves separation of different fiber types prior to recycling.