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Circular packaging – aim high!

10 June 2021

Circular packaging – aim high!

We’re all aware of the global plastic pollution crisis. Plastic packaging waste has a significant share in contributing to the creation of this crisis. Replacing single use plastic straws with paper ones isn’t sufficient at this stage. It’s time for bold and immediate action.

We need solutions which are:

  • Real and not illusory
  • Bringing a significant, radical improvement rather than incremental change
  • Enable a decrease in the generation of plastic packaging waste and through this help protect our environment plus at the same time also offer value to customers and businesses

 

Circular economy

Circular economy is the direction set by the European Union and one which supports our path towards climate neutrality. Therefore, we should apply the principles of circular economy also in the area of packaging. In Poland the concept of circular economy is often reduced to mean waste management with better recycling rates. This is a mistake as circular economy is much more than recycling. It’s a new transformative approach which brings new business models. Therefore, in this article I’ll focus on solutions other than recycling.

The three principles of circular economy formulated by the Ellen MacArhtur Foundation are:

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use (at their highest possible value)
  • Regenerate natural systems

The concept of circular economy is very nicely presented in this short animated video:

 

 

Upstream innovation for circular packaging

If you want to apply the principles of circular economy to packaging, then you need to address the problem at its root cause. A cause that plays a significant role is the huge and constantly growing amount of single use plastic packaging introduced to the market. More than a third of this packaging ends up in the environment.[1] We need to recognise the absurdity of choosing an extremely durable material for a very short use.

Often when we hear “packaging” and “circular economy” we automatically think of recycling – designing for recyclability or from recycled content and so on. Recycling is part of the solution, but it’s not what we should start with when looking at innovating in the area of packaging.

Instead, we should look at three strategies in the following order:

  1. Elimination
  2. Reuse
  3. Material Circulation (through recycling or composting)

Moreover, it’s crucial to look holistically at the product, packaging and business model and not only focus on the packaging. If you and your company want to approach the topic of changing packaging in a serious way, then when organising a meeting about it you should invite a diverse group with representatives from various departments of your business.

For example, some companies went from liquid products to solid products which automatically enabled changes and innovations within packaging.

There are the ones you could have a look at to get some inspiration:

  • cleaning products: cleaning tablets Everdrop
  • food: nut milk in the form of a paste JOI
  • make-up: solid foundation LUSH

 

Elimination

It’s impossible to reach a circular economy for plastics without applying the elimination strategy. We are seeing that recycling cannot keep up with the pace at which our plastic waste generation is rising. On a global scale, only 14% of plastic packaging waste gets recycled.[2] It’s estimated that without radical changes, by 2040 the amount of plastic waste will double and the amount of waste that leaks into the ocean will triple.[3]

Every one of us could easily give examples of unnecessary packaging or packaging elements.

  • Shipping packaging which is much bigger than the contents
  • Cosmetics or food products packed in multiple layers only to create a certain decorative element or an effect of luxury
  • So called multi-buys which means that a few products are wrapped together in foil and sold at a special price
  • And many, many more..

Packaging, which does not fulfil any significant function can be eliminated. In case the packaging does have a function, which we want to keep, we can look at innovations that will fulfil this function but eliminate the need for packaging. Apeel is a good example here. It’s a kind of a spray applied to fruit and vegetables as a sort of additional skin which preserves the produce fresh for longer. It doesn’t have any negative impact as it’s completely plant based.

 

Reuse

If you can eliminate the packaging, you should consider making it reusable. In the past two years there has been an increasing number of start-ups offering reusable solutions. Also big corporations joined the trend and started piloting reusable options. What we need now is for these pilots to be scaled up and be implemented across the market, so that reusable solutions are accessible and convenient for the users.

In France, recent changes in the law are supporting the switch to reusables. From 2023 fast food restaurants won’t be able to serve food in single use packaging if it’s bought for onsite consumption and not take-away. Legislative developments are also paving the way towards reusables in Germany, where from 2023 restaurants, cafes and bars from a certain size, will have to offer reusable packaging as an alternative to single use packaging for take-away orders.

Imagine a day like this: you start in the morning by getting your coffee-to-go or a freshly squeezed juice in a reusable cup with a deposit, such as UrCup or Take!Cup. After work, on your way home, you pick up a parcel from a parcel locker – the parcel arrives packed in reusable packaging such as Packoorang. You take the contents out and return the packaging to the locker. No need to take it home, let alone stuff your home bin with single use shipping packaging. You also stop by at the cosmetic shop and refill your favourite shampoo at a refill station such as the ones created by SWAPP! or Cosmetomat. You’re tired and the fridge at home is empty, so you order a meal via an app on your mobile and at checkout choose delivery in a reusable container such as VYTAL or ReBowl. Next day you stock up with some ready meals for example from Vegevek – you guessed it, it comes in reusable packaging with a deposit. You will have a few jars ready in the fridge when you need to quickly grab some food and won’t need to worry about creating masses of single use packaging waste. We could continue this story..

I hope you’re starting to see this picture. Can you imagine a reality like this? It’s right in front of us and some people are already co-creating it and companies driving this transformation are building a solid business case too. It’s been estimated that globally replacing just 20% of single use plastic packaging with reusables presents a 10-billion-dollar opportunity.[4]

If your company approaches the reuse strategy in a serious way, with creativity and determination, you too will be able to make a significant contribution to move from throw-away culture to one based on well-designed reusable solutions. And to make money on it.

 

Material Circulation

If you can’t eliminate the packaging and you can’t make it reusable either that’s when you should look into designing for circulation – be it circulation through recycling or composting. As mentioned, this strategy is not the focus of this article. The one thing I want to stress however, is the importance of getting solid data on the recycling and composting infrastructure available in a given territory. You need to have this information when designing your packaging. Therefore, collaboration with those in charge of collection, sorting and recycling / composting is key in order to make sure that your packaging is not only recyclable or compostable in theory but actually gets to the right place where the process enabling circulation can be done effectively and in an economically viable way.

 

Are you up for it?

If we are serious about changing the current path we’re on and ensuring regeneration of our damaged ecosystems, then moving to real circular packaging solutions, designed with the principles of circular economy in mind, is a necessity. Implementing circular solutions will bring some challenges. One of the key challenges and one that is not that often discussed, is the need for rethinking marketing on top of rethinking the product, the packaging and the business model. These days packaging plays a massive marketing and sales role. Therefore, innovations which regard packaging will require a new creative approach to marketing too.

Who is ready to take on these challenges? Only companies which are courageous, responsible and determined to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It’s companies who at the same time see the business opportunities which lie in truly circular solutions.

Is your company one of them?

 

AUTHOR

Anna Desogus, Circular Together

 

[1] The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics, 2016, World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company

[2] The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics, 2016, World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company.

[3] Breaking the plastic wave; A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution, 2020, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Washington D.C.

[4] Reuse – Rethinking packaging, 2016, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Anna Desogus

Anna Desogus

Anna runs Circular Together – a training and consulting comapany. She is a moderator of workshops focussed on circular economy, zero waste and climate change.Apart from promoting circular economy in theory, she also is involved with circular economy in practice. Since 2021 Anna represents the Norwegian start-up Packoorang in Poland. The company offers reusable shipping bags and circular pack...

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