Moving Toward a Circular Economy for Packaging

Tim Molek

Published 1 hour ago.
About a 6 minute read.

Image: Vileda

Brand Provided

A circular economy for plastics is achievable in our lifetime, though it will require consumers and manufacturers to work together. Whether companies decide to keep it in-house or partner with like-minded third parties, an investment in our future now will lead to more profitable operations and create relentless forward progress.

California recently joined eight other states in passing one of the nation’s
most comprehensive
geared toward phasing out single-use

and alleviating other plastic packaging
Much like plastic bans that have swept across Europe, the US is now on
track to hold corporations and consumers accountable for their plastic waste

This is a critical step for the US — considering it alone accounts for 40
million tons — or about 10

of the world’s plastic waste — a year. Unfortunately, only five to six

of that was recycled in 2021. The remainder ends up in landfills or dumpsites;
or as litter in public, forests and waterways.

As California helps to set the tone in plastic recycling practices, corporations
will need to forge ahead of mandates to build circular processes into production
and packaging of goods. Although companies can expect obstacles in consumer
education and access to recyclable materials and adequate recycling
a circular economy for packaging can be achieved simply by relying on the old
adage of “reduce, reuse and recycle.”

Innovations reducing waste

With packaging, many brands go overboard — using unnecessary materials when they
could take a more minimalist
There is an idea that extra packaging is extra insurance to protect products in
transport, make them more noticeable on shelves, and provide more space to
communicate details to consumers. Ironically, what is designed to attract
consumers may deter them from purchasing a product. A
found 55 percent of US survey respondents are extremely or very concerned about
the environmental impact of product packaging and could start to avoid items
they perceive as overpackaged.

Because of this shift in consumer priorities, the challenge facing many brands
is to strategically and holistically determine what specific materials and
packaging designs are both essential and best suited to serve those purposes
without creating a system of excess waste.

Strategic partnerships can help hold brands accountable. The Ellen MacArthur
’s Global Plastics
for example, is aimed at eliminating all unnecessary packaging with an absolute
reduction of over 10 percent in virgin plastic by 2025 versus 2020. Freudenberg
Home and Cleaning

(FHCS) signed onto the commitment and, from 2019 to 2021, has reduced
packaging weight by 180 metric tons by taking a holistically sustainable
approach to packaging in order to reanalyze design and plastic content.

Brands can and should also look beyond finished packaging and consider transport
packaging as well. FHCS is in the process of changing its transportation shrink
wrap to recycled material and, at the same time, will reduce its thickness by as
much as 75 percent.

Rethinking and reusing

We are seeing more and more companies explore the idea of reusable products for
their customers; but packaging for internal shipments can be viewed in the same

The first step in creating a packaging reuse

is developing the proper guidelines that advise employees on how to open the
package, save it, and then reuse it when shipping something new. Where feasible,
Freudenberg has invested in returnable transport boxes within and between
factory sites to drastically reduce single-use materials when transporting
products internally.

Reusing internal shipping materials can make a dramatic impact on reducing the
carbon footprint of any company. It is important with reusing packaging, though,
to consider the overall carbon footprint of each transaction. Elaborate reuse
schemes that require multiple distribution networks or extensive deep cleaning
of the packaging before reuse can sometimes have a larger carbon footprint than
other potential solutions presented.

Educate, recycle, repeat

Recycled raw materials are getting more difficult to find. There is a lack of
consumer education around how to properly recycle certain materials, while
Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) are working on tight budgets to sift through
non-recyclable goods — creating an overall recycled materials shortage.
Corporations have an opportunity to consider creatively partnering with MRFs to
help with funding. The Green

is a symbol used on packaging in some European markets to signify a producer has
made a financial contribution to a packaging recovery system, which enables the
sorting, recycling and recovery of their packaging at its end of life.

Still, there are numerous alternatives on the market that consist of recycled
materials and can be recycled themselves. A common alternative in packaging that
was popular in replacing styrofoam is chipboard, made of 100 percent recycled
paper. Alternatively, chipboard cartons can be used to replace single-use

in products that allow for it. In general, mono-materials have risen in
popularity as products that are composed of a single type of material are
typically easier to recycle.

Plastic alternatives are not without both benefits and drawbacks. Depending on
their carbon footprint, how they are sourced and how they decompose, it’s
important to know there are times when recyclable plastic better fits packaging
needs than paper, for instance.

While we cannot guarantee recycling of our packaging happens because of consumer
habits or lack of recycling systems, FHCS continues to strive to design all
packaging for recyclability. FHCS’ goal is to be 100 percent designed for
recyclability; currently, almost 80 percent of our plastic packaging is
recyclable and will soon increase to 90 percent.

Programs & resources

Developing circular processes starts at the top. A sustainable vision should be
built into your business strategy, rather than just creating an ‘alternate’ line
to appease consumers. Under this shared vision, companies can find success in
starting up an internal sustainability task force of volunteers to bridge the
gap between different departments or even designating roles at their
corporations for sustainability experts; after working in various positions at
Freudenberg for the past two decades, I stepped into my role as the Global
Senior Director of Sustainability — which allows me to focus on my interest in
sustainable operations.

Of course, companies don’t have to venture on the path toward sustainability
There are excellent resources and partners, including the Ellen MacArthur
Foundation and many
that help corporations looking to reduce their packaging footprint.

Coming full circle

The process of reducing the global footprint of plastic packaging will come down
to education combined with action. A circular economy for plastics is achievable
in our lifetime, though it will require consumers and manufacturers to work
together. Whether organizations decide to take these efforts in-house or partner
with like-minded third parties, we hold a responsibility to continue to
innovate. Overall, an investment in our future now will lead to more profitable
operations in the long run and create relentless forward progress.