Moving towards a circular economy

Date : 12 February 2020

We need to be increasingly agile in providing packaging solutions that fit within both ecological and food systems that are sustainable.

Our products must remain protected from manufacture through to the consumer, preserved, with the right qualities to maintain product quality, flexibility, safety and hygiene, and consumers should be informed through guidance or labelling.

Throughout the journey, IGD will provide support to the industry on sustainable packaging systems and how to navigate through a complex and evolving field.

What is a circular economy?

The circular economy is ‘a systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society and the environment’ (Ellen MacArthur Foundation). Circularity or a circular economy model aims to keep the resources in use for as long as possible – extracting its maximum value through maximum use/reuse. It encourages the effective collection and sorting of used material, recycling and regeneration – the adoption of recycled content in new products over the use of virgin. This avoids the make-use-waste linear model.

Moving to a circular economy

Packaging has its benefits

Packaging is needed to protect, preserve and inform. Regardless of materials, it:

  • Provides damage protection in transportation
  • Enables longer shelf life reducing waste
  • Provides hygiene and safety properties
  • Supports design and brand messaging.

Using plastics and the issue of plastic waste

Following rising public concern about plastic waste and marine pollution since the catalyst of the BBC’s Blue Planet, the use of plastic packaging has been challenged, in particular single-use plastics, excessively packed products and the inconsistencies of effective collection, recycling and recovery infrastructure. This has led to a strong consumer demand of government and corporate leadership for change.

Waste plastics found in the environment are predominantly caused by littering and mismanaged waste practices globally. Waste plastics and microplastics (broken down plastics particles) have entered rivers and oceans causing significant damage to wildlife including entanglement, ingestion and the release of toxins.

Moving in the right direction

Research, trials, innovations and collaborations are happening all over the world and address how to reduce packaging, how to create a change in food systems currently based on convenience and price, and how to mainstream reuse – ultimately creating a circular economy.

Agility in application is key – looking at the ‘possible’ short term options and what’s ‘probable’ in the long term. Whole systems should be assessed (e.g. are there ways to shorten supply chains so that packaging, which is often there to increase shelf life, becomes obsolete?) and innovations should move beyond packaging technology and into business models.

Sustainable packaging system strategies should focus on:

  1. Remove – eliminating unnecessary packaging
  2. Reduce – using less packaging such as light-weighting
  3. Reuse – using the same material over and over e.g. multiuse bags, refillable containers, reusable coffee cups
  4. Recycle and use recycled material – segregating, collecting and sorting used packaging. Increase the amount of recycled content used (avoiding virgin materials)

Unintended consequences

It’s important, however, to ensure that decisions have assessed any potential impacts by questioning every possible implication at each stage of the whole value chain and system. For instance, does it lead to an unacceptable increase in food waste, will it impact on carbon commitments or will it impact effective recovery downstream?

Setting the bar

The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and the UK Plastics Pact are driving this 5-step circular economy ambition, whereby all plastics have more than one use and are captured to be remade back into plastic. For this to work, all stakeholders - including plastics manufacturers, convertors, brands, retailers, recycling companies and the Government - must be aligned to the same goal.

The big question: how do I apply this in my work?

To support you, IGD has created resources to help you understand and guide you through tackling the complexities around sustainable packaging systems.

Following rising public concern about the rise in plastic waste, inconsistencies with collection and recycling facilities in the UK, and the increase of marine pollution, consumers are asking retailers and brands to minimise use and dependency on plastic.