Closing the lid on global packaging waste

Packaging serves a range of purposes. When designed well, it protects goods across increasingly long supply chains and can extend the life of food and beverage products, helping to minimise wastage, while also offering protection against contamination.

The problems of a linear packaging industry

For manufacturers and retailers, packaging is also a key part of brand recognition. It is an important marketing tool, communicating product quality and company values.

But you don’t need to look far to find examples of excessive or even unnecessary packaging.

When this wasteful approach to design is combined with the facts that most packaging is single-use and recycling rates remain stubbornly low, then it’s clear to see how we’ve ended up with mountains of packaging waste in landfill sites or polluting land and ocean ecosystems.

A report published by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in January 2016, entitled ‘The New Plastics Economy’, calculated that a ‘business as usual’ scenario could see our oceans contain more plastic by weight than fish by 2050.

And because plastic packaging is mainly used only once, it estimated that 95% of its value – put at $80 to $120 billion in 2016 – is lost to the global economy each year.

Moving to more circular practices

A circular approach to packaging requires changes to the way in which we design, use, collect and recycle packaging material.

For example, the New Plastics Economy initiative sets out six key principles for what a circular economy in plastic packaging would look like. They include:

-  Only using plastic packaging where it serves a clear purpose;

-  Creating incentives to ensure plastic packaging is recycled and reused in practice rather than just in  theory; and

-  Phasing out the use of hazardous chemicals in packaging materials.

While plastic has rightly dominated headlines in recent years, the economic and environmental benefits of moving to more circular approaches for metal, glass and cardboard should not be overlooked.

With more and more shopping being done online, the ‘right-sizing’ of delivery boxes is a key consideration in packaging design as more items can be loaded onto each delivery vehicle. Minimising the amount of filler material around the product also helps to keep down the weight of each item, reducing fuel consumption and emissions.

The concept of ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR) is also increasingly being built into regulations on packaging and waste. EPR encourages the producers of goods to adopt circular economy principles by holding them responsible for the costs of managing products at end of life.

The UK government is currently consulting on how to strengthen EPR mechanisms for packaging to reduce waste and further increase recycling rates.

Innovation in action

Unilever is one of a number of multinational companies that have committed to reducing their packaging and waste footprints. It is aiming for 100% of its plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and will increase recycled plastic content in its packaging to at least 25% over the same period.

In January 2019, Unilever also announced that a number of its brands would be participating in the Loop waste-free circular shopping and delivery system. Currently being trialled in cities in the US and France, Loop will allow shoppers to purchase refillable containers for a variety of products, with empty containers sent back and refills ordered online.

At a later stage in the packaging cycle, Tomra is a Norwegian company which manufactures and supplies reverse vending machines (RVMs). These collect, identify and sort recyclable containers deposited by consumers, helping to improve the quantity and quality of material available for recycling.

With over 80,000 RVMs installed worldwide, Tomra estimates that its technology means over 35 billion used beverage containers are collected each year.

Sources include: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Unilever, ERP, Tomra