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."
‘Biodegradable’ as a claim is unevenly regulated and is a catch-all for a range of bio-based or fossil-fuel based materials, with varying conditions needed for the materials to properly break down.
“There's been such an increase in demand for [PCR] materials and the supply hasn't kept up. Small companies are finding this particularly challenging since they may have trouble meeting minimum order quantities and are competing with large brands. My advice would be to plan ahead and expect delays.”
It is the waste generated from the original manufacturing process that is used again in the same material, or from the waste we put in our recycling bins.
“A lot of the big manufacturing companies are facing a tremendous shortage of recycled paper, because some of the countries have actually stopped the importation of recycled paper, not to mention recycled plastic.”
A UK audit of packaging recycling practices found this astonishing increase, with exports accounting for half of the packaging reported as recycled in 2017. What happens to the packaging materials once shipped overseas is difficult to trace.
“Most recyclable plastic claims use the universal recycling symbol and a general statement directing the consumer to recycle... While these brands should be commended for giving clear instructions to consumers, it could also be argued that they allow companies to shift the burden to consumers."
Paper bag production requires more raw materials and energy and produces more waste than the equivalent process for plastic bags. A UK study stated that a paper bag must be used at least three times to decrease its impact on the environment to match that of a plastic bag used just once.
believe paper bags to be more sustainable than plastic. Some consumers consider [multinational fast fashion retailer] Primark to be the most sustainable brand purely because of its use of paper bags.
How much of it is environmentally sound, or greenwashing? It’s difficult to compare the virtues and vices of different packaging materials because each type of packaging has different impacts at different points in its life.
“People see there’s a packaging problem, and decide to use glass, but glass is not the solution either because glass has got a huge environmental footprint. ...plastic can have a smaller environmental footprint than glass.”
Life cycle assessments have shown that glass bottles have a greater negative environmental impact than their plastic counterparts.
A survey of consumer sentiments towards sustainability in packaging revealed that for beverages and household products in particular, customers are requesting more glass packaging. However, life cycle assessments have shown that glass bottles may have a greater negative environmental impact than their plastic counterparts.
Corner protectors made from mushroom packaging are listed as more than double the cost of that of comparable polystyrene shipping corners, however the environmental benefits of mycelium packaging far outweigh those of expanded polystyrene.
“...mycelial networks are unique, extremely fine, and strong, with high tensile strength and the ability to resist water, decay, and immense internal or external pressures. They come from nature, and under the right conditions, return to nature as nutrients."
In 2006, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre discovered that Mycelium could be formed into a packaging material with similar properties to that of expanded polystyrene.
The material is biodegradable in 4 to 6 weeks, and home compostable. It's also competitively priced. So far Notpla has partnered with the likes of JustEat Takeaway UK and Heinz to introduce seaweed-based packaging as a plastic-free alternative.
Growing up to 1 metre per day, [brown seaweed] doesn’t compete with food crops, doesn’t need fresh water or fertiliser and actively contributes to de-acidifying our oceans.
Made from 100% recycled PET, 100% recyclable and 87% lighter than a standard glass bottle. However, as customers associate a glass wine bottle with a higher quality product, the use of a less environmentally costly material has created a barrier to acceptance in the market.
More economically and environmentally sustainable packaging options will become increasingly attractive for the wine industry.
Global events are driving a price increase in glass. Producers relying on imports of glass have felt the pinch, as US wine producers are experiencing, while the Australian wine industry, which mainly relies on locally produced glass bottles, has been more protected from price shocks.
Given the UN’s warnings of a global ‘sand crisis’, recycled glass should be used wherever possible.
Although glass packaging is commonly recyclable, contamination is a problem, when mixed with non-recyclable types of glass and other ceramics. When contaminated, recycled glass can’t be used for packaging, and is only suitable for down-cycled applications, such as an aggregate in construction materials.
Glass is one of the oldest packaging materials. It does not degrade, can withstand high temperatures, is strong enough for stacking, and is easy to clean and sterilise. Glass’ impermeability and stability make it a clear choice for perfumes and a range of cosmetics.
It’s comparatively inexpensive, durable, and easy to form into various shapes. While soda-lime glass is recyclable, other forms of glass, such as borosilicate (used for products like Pyrex dishes) are not recyclable.
Producers may face aluminium can shortages over the next year or so.
“[The packaging material] had to be infinitely reusable and recyclable. We had the options of aluminium and stainless steel. In terms of costliness, a steel bottle was five times the cost of an aluminium bottle. While the Indian economy is evolving every day, customers would not be okay with the fact of paying $10 for one particular item of packaging itself. So we chose aluminium bottles, because $1 does not really hurt the pocket. That’s essentially what drove our decision.”
Recycling aluminium uses around 95% less energy than producing virgin aluminium, where the material is cast and rolled, and formed into a new packaging component.
However, the production of virgin aluminium is environmentally costly: it involves mining for bauxite and the smelting process requires significant energy, and releases emissions.
This mixed-material, often used in chocolate bar wrappers and potato chip packets, is multi-layered and very difficult to recycle.
It has a range of packaging applications. It can be made into cans - think soft drinks and deodorant - and can also be rolled into sheets for use as aluminium foil and food trays.
Prices are expected to continue to rise through 2022 and are attributed to a combination of rising energy and fuel costs, as well as a limited supply of corn starch (a small but important part of paper production).
"When you fold recycled cardboard, it splits in half down the seam. So there are limitations for making boxes that have enough rigidity for shipping products. ...because of the splitting edges problem, we’d have to coat it - and the coatings are usually plastic. So we go for FSC certified material (for boxing products) because at least that is from a renewable source."
The cellulose fibres that make up paper shorten during the recycling process, reducing their strength. In theory, paper and paperboard materials could be recycled up to 6 or 7 times, before the fibres break down too much. Because of the loss of strength, businesses can run into challenges when using fully recycled paper and cardboard.
About half of this is used for packaging. Globally, around 55% of all cardboard is still made by cutting down trees, but the majority of logging is now performed in a controlled, renewable way, as certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and others.
These once-in-a-lifetime increases in plastic packaging pricing are a result of weather events, infrastructure breakdown, Covid-19, and labour shortages… Recent events in Ukraine continue the upward pressure on packaging resins, with regional PET prices increasing by USD 0.20/lb in the first two months of 2022.
Transportation costs are a different story: a glass bottle may be more than 10 times heavier than a plastic bottle, with the heavier glass bottles needing 40% more energy to transport, at a cost up to five times higher than plastic bottles. This means that a single-use plastic bottle may turn out to be a more economical and less environmentally costly option than a single-use glass bottle (though single-use is never the ideal).
is recycled in Denmark. While technically recyclable, EPS is in many contexts not economically viable to sort and recycle. Th recycling program in Denmark is not only successful, but an exception to the rule.
It's difficult to do and these cases are the exception to the rule.
1. Small-format packaging 2. Multi-material packaging 3. Uncommon plastic packaging materials 4. Nutrient-contaminated packaging materials
For recycling, these plastics must be sorted differently given the variations in characteristics even among the same resin group (mainly melting points). This dynamic affects the recyclability potential of other plastics requiring investments in infrastructure to allow for cost effective collection and sorting of these plastics.
200 times that of 1950. It is estimated we produce 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.
“It is important to keep in mind that plastic is a unique material with many benefits: it’s cheap, versatile, lightweight, and resistant. This makes it a valuable material for many functions. It can also provide environmental benefits: it plays a critical role in maintaining food quality, safety and reducing food waste. The trade-offs between plastics and substitutes (or complete bans) are therefore complex and could create negative knock-on impacts on the environment.”
Sites like Material ConneXion offer detailed information about the properties of thousands of substrates.
"L'Oreal are leading the way in designing their products’ packaging to be more circular, but also investing in innovative materials and recycling processes for the systems and materials of the future.”
In addition, a number of the L'Oreal products have been Cradle to Cradle certified.
Some of these benefits include: Globally recognised standard, third-party assessment and emphasis on progress over perfection.
1. Material Health 2. Product Circularity 3. Clean Air & Climate Protection 4. Water & Soil Stewardship 5. Social Fairness
"The design framework is characterised by three principles derived from nature: 1. That everything is a resource for something else 2. To use clean and renewable energy 3. To celebrate diversity. These Cradle to Cradle Design Principles became a founding school of thought for the circular economy.”
Any packaging material, whatever its credentials, will create some degree of negative impact on the environment.
“Replacing one disposable product (e.g. made of plastic) with another disposable product made of a different material (e.g. paper, biodegradable plastic) is only likely to transfer the burdens and create other problems.”
WRAP UK has called for its members to remove additional plastic wrapping from multi-sale packs, and eliminate as far as possible wrapping of uncut fruit and vegetables.
1. Eliminate 2. Reuse 3. Material circulation (recycle)
“Although methodological tools like Life cycle assessment (LCA) can enable quantification of environmental burdens and impacts over the whole life cycle of a product, they can even increase the risk of greenwashing if poorly conducted or communicated. Same is true when packaging sustainability protocols and guidelines are followed in a too narrow way.”
like the LCA Calculator - a quick and intuitive way for designers and engineers to understand, analyse and compare environmental impacts of products and particular design decisions.
is free to download, it’s a technical application and takes some time to understand, but manuals, case studies, and training programs are available.
Traditionally, performing one single life cycle assessment could take months of work due to the large amount of data that needs to be collected from the value chain.
Results can sometimes be counter-intuitive. When compared on volume, in this example polystyrene is found to be the more environmentally friendly option. Still, it’s not without barriers...
“Package design should also be subjected to LCA in order to ensure that the ensuing solutions are more environmentally friendly than the original ones.”
...from the extraction of raw materials through to post-consumer use, and indicates a product’s footprint.
"We've made a lot of great decisions in the past... We've eliminated all of our soft plastics, even if they're a hundred percent carbon neutral, recycled bioplastics - we’ve removed them because they are not recyclable at the end of life."
This sends a clear signal that the company’s motivations behind their sustainability commitments are truly for the good of the planet, and positions that business as a leading innovator in their field.
"The thing that is really difficult for us is nail polish [packaging]. ...the cap is PP, which is not home recyclable. Then the wand is made of something else, and the bristles are made of nylon. Yes, we can make them out of post-consumer recycled plastics if we have a minimum order quantity of 300,000, but then they're still not recyclable at the end of life anyway."
Printed in-house using a state-of-the-art 3D printer, Heinz then followed a rigorous testing procedure to make sure the cap met the highest quality standards. Given the volume of their annual product sales, this seemingly minor change may go on to create a major positive impact at scale.
The unique new cap – made of an innovative single type of material – has been created after Heinz invested eight years of research and development involving more than 185,000 hours and investing US$1.2 million to find a suitable replacement cap for their convenient and extremely popular squeezy bottles, which sold one billion units globally in 2020.
The Heinz bottle itself has long been made from recyclable PET plastic, the bottle cap is a mix of 2 components: the rigid plastic twist top, and a silicone leak-proof valve. This mixed componentry has prevented the recyclability of the ketchup lid for the one billion units sold globally each year.
“While the higher-quality packaging material itself costs roughly the same as the previous boxes, the new solution does have an economic as well as an environmental benefit: reducing the boxes’ weight by 18 percent results in air freight cost savings of $3 million to $5 million annually.”
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