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Whatever systems your packaging fits into, you can take steps to track and ensure that the systems are working properly. If you find they aren’t functioning as well as they could, identify the pain points and work to reduce them. Reliable data is invaluable here.
Clear communication to customers about what to do with the packaging after they use it will help to make your chosen packaging system more effective in practice.
This is one example of how businesses are innovating and moving towards circularity in their packaging. Globally recognised frameworks and certifications are readily available and can help your business to set the course to improve your packaging.
What were the reasons for choosing a certain set of materials, a supplier, or a system? Do the reasons for these decisions still stand, or is there room to move? What aspects of your current packaging are the most environmentally costly? What aspects are the simplest to improve? Are there components in your current packaging that could be removed altogether?
"Beauty Kitchen is doing a fabulous job of educating their customers about the importance of plastic packaging reduction and shifting out of single-use packaging. They credit that educational process with the success and the acceptance of this program by their customers.”
“Beauty Kitchen has developed a really exciting program called “Return, Refill, Repeat”, which is a packaging refill system. They have designed their packaging to support the system, made from aluminium and glass jars and bottles. They're making it possible to move away from single-use packaging and promoting refilling of packaging, which is high up on the hierarchy of sustainable packaging strategies.”
“The biggest learning for me would be, don’t rush to do things at scale. It helps you understand the customer really, really well, because only when you understand what the pain points are, will you be able to address these and scale it up successfully.”
“The system worked in a manner that once you're done using it, we'd collect the old aluminium bottle back and give you another. Six months into the pilot, we thought, why keep returning bottles to the washing centre when we can actually refill at their doorstep itself?"
A platform by Recube, Refillable is a localised approach to refillable packaging, where a truck or electric bike arrives at a customer’s doorstep, ready to refill common household products into their existing packaging.
Current systems include 1. Refillable bulk dispenser 2. Refillable parent packaging 3. Returnable packaging 4. Transit (returnable) packaging
Supply chains are far more complex, with online sales only driving the complexity further as cross-border commerce expands and last-mile problems continue.
“Waste in itself is a relatively modern idea that came about when it became more economically viable to produce new materials than to repurpose existing ones - and to burn and bury the rest. Up until the 1940s, when mass production, shifts in consumerism, and plastics came into play, things were actually quite circular.”
The knowledge sharing and in-progress updates by Asda’s leaders are invaluable, and allow other businesses to take advantage of these learnings and apply them to their own initiatives.
"Those barriers are really all related to a natural fear of trying something new: What if I do it wrong, or spill it all over the floor? Am I allowed to bring my own container or do I need to buy yours every time? How much is it going to cost, and will it be cheaper than my usual packaged line? Is it really worth the effort?"
UK supermarket chain, Asda has partnered with household brands to roll out product refill trials in a handful of stores, to see how suppliers and customers respond.
“There's not a one-size-fits-all approach to pursuing circularity in packaging since there are so many different types of packaging needs and approaches. We give companies a menu of options to choose from to demonstrate that there are circularity measures in place for the packaging."
While the concept of a circular economy has become more prominent as “an alternative to the classic use of ‘make-use-dispose’”, the practical implications and opportunities for businesses have not been widely documented.
A “misplaced faith in overhyped approaches such as ‘creating shared value’ and ‘the circular economy’”. Pucker argues that these have been “ touted as win-win, pain-free solutions… [using] case studies, not empirical research, as evidence”.
The packaging design process is not limited to eliminating unnecessary packaging and selecting packaging materials. Consider the design of systems that enable customers to maximise the embedded value of the packaging through circular processes, like reuse and refill programs.
It provides people with clear direction about what to do with the packaging in their hands. There are three types of label classifications, relying on a mix of visual and written cues.
“... its use without text assumes that all consumers understand its meaning; and/or that all of the product’s material can be recycled. It also only shows that the packaging is recyclable but not that this recycling is actually available via local infrastructure.”
A 2022 review identified “communication of information on functions and environmental consequences of packaging material” and “communication of recycling functions and consequences” as two factors among several driving people’s behaviour.
Including: compostable, degradable, recyclable, recycled content, pre-consumer material, post-consumer material, recovered material, reusable, refillable.
For reusable packaging to be effective, it needs to fit within a broader system that supports reuse: a return and reuse program, a refill program, or other education initiatives to support customers to continue reusing the packaging.
Reusable packaging maintains the highest possible value of the material, avoiding the energy use involved in processing materials, and reducing packaging waste.
So disposal of these materials is important as they can contaminate PCR stocks if not properly separated in recycling plants.
"We have a good arrangement with the farmers to buy the patty straw waste biomass material after they have completed their harvesting so that they would secure supplemental income. Normally, the farmers would burn the paddy straw after harvesting rice. A prevailing practice that is a major cause of air pollution."
EcoPacific Packaging is a Malaysia-based supplier of biobased packaging to hospitals and retail settings, which has been certified by Cradle to Cradle. Their lines of packaging products include patient-care products and food trays.
“Some European countries have more disciplined practices in separating some of these different types of materials, and they have industrial composters to handle them. But even for the consumer, you can [compost] in the garden. There is no harm, and they will break down over time.”
"When we are talking about compostable, we are talking of materials that break down with exposure to temperature, humidity, and so on. They will then break up easily in the soil without any harm to it at all.”
“There has been a misuse of the word biodegradable. Not all bio-plastics are biodegradable. If they can degrade into smaller plastic micro-plastic components, that's all they are: degradable."