How are companies applying circular thinking to packaging?

How are companies applying circular thinking to packaging?

Packaging plays a vital role in protecting goods and attracting sales. But traditionally packaging has moved in linear supply chains with little collaboration on designing for recyclability or reuse. Companies have tended to opt for low value materials, often used in combinations that are hard to recycle or produce an adverse impact on the environment. When coupled with a lack of widespread consumer understanding around recycling, packaging can end up destined to become waste in a short space of time. Some 79.9m tonnes of packaging waste were generated in Europe in 2011.

Now, the landscape is changing, and fast. Shoppers are starting to demand more innovative packaging. Resource scarcity is putting pressure on companies to make smarter material choices. And as the global population expands and the spending power of the growing middle classes increases, demand for packaging is expected to soar. Indeed, global packaging sales are forecast to reach $975 billion by 2018, according to a report by packaging giant DS Smith. Meanwhile, recyclable post-consumer packaging with an estimated market value of $11.4bn is wasted in the US each year, the report reveals. There is a clear opportunity here to derive value from waste and keep packaging materials in use for longer.

“Packaging should be an asset, not a liability,” says Roy Vissers of the Cradle-to-Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “Companies need to design waste out of the packaging lifecycle, in a way that mimics nature. That means redirecting packaging waste into a closed loop process with no loss of material performance.”

Importantly, companies should see packaging as a natural extension of the product when it comes to ‘circular’ or Cradle to Cradle design, he believes. And this vision must enter mainstream business thinking.

“A handful of companies are rethinking their packaging and beginning to create designs with better quality materials, but it’s not nearly visible enough,” he says. “It’s vital that more businesses become aware of the commercial and ecological benefits of taking a circular approach to packaging.”

Tony Foster of DS Smith says the retail sector in particular is becoming more active in rethinking packaging. DS Smith advocates moving away from linear practices towards circular ‘supply cycles’. In this way, everyone involved, from designers to recyclers, collaborates to understand how material choices and performance requirements affect the recyclability of packaging, as well as the energy and resources used in producing it. Specifying recycled content is another important aspect to consider here, according to WRAP.

So what innovations are taking place within the packaging arena?

Making smart material choices

One example of disruptive innovation in packaging materials is the Cradle to Cradle certified mushroom material from Ecovative. The company combines agricultural waste including corn stalks and cotton burrs with mushroom roots into a high performing, home compostable alternative to plastic. Dell was one of the first companies to use the material. It eliminated 20m pounds of packaging between 2008 and 2012, including by opting for mushroom and bamboo-based materials, generating more than $18m (£12.3m) in cost savings. Its new wheat straw packaging uses 40% less energy and 90% less water than traditional paper-based cardboard.

Elsewhere, Coca-Cola has just introduced the world’s first PET bottle made entirely from plants, and cleaning products business Method has created bottles made partially from ocean plastic waste. It has also designed a product range housed in plastic containers made from non-GMO sugarcane.

Collaborating with suppliers

Partnering with suppliers is central to giving packaging materials a new lease of life. For example, Carlsberg joined forces with six key suppliers to create a ‘circular community’ to review how it could optimise packaging for recycling and reuse, and importantly, retain or improve product quality. With 42% of Carlsberg’s CO2 emissions derived from packaging, innovations of this kind stand to help the company make big leaps forward in cutting its environmental footprint. Its next project is the world’s first biodegradable wood-fibre beer bottle.

Elsewhere, a multi-industry initiative convened by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, known as Project MainStream, is creating a roadmap for circular action on plastic packaging, as it seeks to accelerate the journey towards a circular economy and prevent 100m tonnes of waste globally. Led by Philips’ CEO, Frans van Houten, the group will identify opportunities for innovation and collaboration throughout the plastics value chain. Among the companies involved are Desso (part of the Tarkett Group), BT, Veolia and Kingfisher.

Educating consumers

Helping consumers to understand how and where they can recycle different types of packaging will play a fundamental role in increasing recycling rates, according to WRAP. The organisation is working with retailers in the UK to improve the clarity of labelling and with waste management companies and councils to provide simple, effective messages on what can be recycled locally.

Manufacturers and retailers are also employing their own tactics to communicate with consumers on recycling. Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) has just launched an online education platform that gives students and teachers a ‘virtual’ view of its plastics recycling centre in France. The ‘real life’ centre is run in partnership with CCE supplier APPE, and now recycles more than 1.5bn PET bottles per year.

With a collective push from all corners of society to view packaging as valuable and reusable, we could see a shift towards more circular thinking, as packaging simply becomes part and parcel of the product it is designed to safeguard.

This article was originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business site.