Circular logic – towards a no-waste economy

6 April 2017

The vogue for sustainability, corporate social responsibility and ethical credibility has made ‘green’ packaging a major selling point for consumers. Packaging & Converting Intelligence considers how the desire to protect the planet is driving a move towards a no-waste economy.

Environmentally conscious innovation has moved from the fringes to near omnipresence. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the development and launch of the EU’s circular economy plan. This champions the move from wasting resources through poor manufacturing, reclamation and recycling techniques to a cycle in which everything is used and no more raw materials are required, and is immensely important. It means an end to cost barriers to buying raw materials, or competing with alternate markets for finite resources, as the automotive and packaging markets do for plastics.

It should also eliminate wasted energy from manufacturing goods that are then thrown away: resources are kept in the chain so we do not need to find more.

Saving the planet

Crucially, for private enterprise, vast savings are there to be made; the latest report from Ellen Macarthur foundation has ten projects worth €325 billion that could all be operational by 2025. To put this into perspective, the entire flexible packaging market by 2025 will be worth about €315 billion, and that will account for nearly a third of the entire packaging industry’s materials use.

As Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, says, “The concept of a circular economy promises a way out. Here products do not quickly become waste, but are reused to extract their maximum value before safely and productively returning to the biosphere. Most importantly for business leaders, such an economy can deliver growth. Innovative product designers and business leaders are already venturing into this space.”

He is certainly not alone. Urs Schenker of Nestle’s research department in Vevey, Switzerland, stated in a recent conference that the circular economy offers a vision that works as a conceptual framework: “It is very useful for reducing resource consumption of products and services, and developing comprehensive waste management systems,” he commented. “In order to provide the best outcome, we cannot look at packaging in isolation. For example, sustainable food systems will require action beyond just packaging improvement, and the bigger the picture we look at , the more comprehensive the solutions we can discover.”

“Packaging has an outsized impact on our planet,” concurs Barry Parkin, chief sustainability and health and well-being officer at Mars Incorporated. “As a global consumer goods company, Mars needs to find ways to drastically improve the environmental, as well as economic, impact of packaging, while keeping protecting and presenting our products effectively. Mars is keen to drive any such effort in our industry. It fully supports all ongoing efforts to promote a circular economy.”

The theme continues with Coca-Cola’s chief sustainability officer, Bea Perez: “Coca-Cola has been a long-time proponent of circular thinking, particularly when it comes to packaging. It introduced refillable bottles 120 years ago. As market and consumer preferences shifted so did the company, offering recyclable PET bottles and then a fully recyclable PET bottle made partially from plants. It’s time for another change – a system fully aligned with the circular economy. The market and environment demand it, and Coca-Cola is proud to be part of this initiative.”

Clearly, there is an appetite for a transition from the EU’s current, linear economy to this new version, but this will require a lot of change, and, therefore, responsiveness from producers and consumers and government alike. As Virginia Janssens, managing director of European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment (EUROPEN) asks, “How do we move towards business models with virtually no waste but only (secondary) raw materials that are reinjected into a circular economy?

“What kind of European policy framework is needed for the packaging supply chain to drive investments towards a competitive and growth-oriented circular economy? How do we take into account the global nature of value chains in this European framework? These are just a couple of questions EUROPEN is addressing in policy discussions related to the EU’s recent proposals. This framework will affect a wide range of sectors and materials, including packaging and packaging waste.

“One precondition for achieving a growth-oriented circular economy is a well-functioning internal market that should be protected. For our sector, this principle ensures the free movement of packaging and packaged goods across Europe. It helps avoid national trade barriers while providing a European-wide economy of scale often needed for investments in making packaging materials and packaged goods more  ‘circular’ and resource-efficient. EU policy-makers are slowly embracing life-cycle thinking in their policy deliberations, which come hand in hand with circularity.”

Supply and demand

For the packaging supply chain, life-cycle approaches (LCA) take into account trade-offs, as changes in one part of the chain will inevitably affect another. For instance, changing the type, weight or design of packaging may compromise a pack’s ability to protect, preserve or market a particular product. Packaging should therefore always be considered in the context of what it contains, and not be considered solely in terms of end of life.

Packaging contributes to resource efficiency in all phases of its life by optimising resource use, helping to prevent product and food waste, extending shelflife, protecting products along different value chains, providing consumers with varied uses, choices and benefits of the products it contains and, finally, to recover the used packaging at the final phase. By answering these challenges, packaging is not only vital to modern societies and lifestyles, but also forms a crucial part of the circular future.

A key instrument linking the circular economy, the internal market and packaging waste policy is extended producer responsibility (EPR) for used packaging. This is currently applied in 25 EU states and has been instrumental in enabling the separate collection and sorting of used packaging to reach continent-wide and national recycling targets for packaging. EPR is seen as a key interface between the supply and demand sides of material flows that are reinjected into the economy as products or materials. This important role is acknowledged in the circular economy package, which calls for binding European minimum performance requirements on EPR compliance schemes (packaging recovery organisations) to ensure more transparency and cost-effectiveness on existing EPR schemes and proper enforcement in the countries implementing EPR. A minimum level of harmonised European rules will help producers and importers in Europe to comply with their legal obligations under EPR and will ensure more control and transparency on their end-of-life costs.

Better-functioning EPR will ultimately boost qualitative and quantitative secondary raw material markets, which will help industry to better manage volatile (virgin or secondary) material markets and related material supply and demand challenges that businesses face in Europe and beyond. The circular economy package offers a great opportunity to address regulatory and market barriers in the EU. Along with a well-functioning internal market for packaging and packaged goods, the supply chain in Europe remains committed to further transition to a resource-efficient and competitive circular economy in which a more transparent EPR framework will be vital for the industry to meet its current and future sustainability challenges.

Janssens concludes by explaining further actions taken by EUROPEN to support the Waste Framework Directive and Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive this February. 

“Taking into account the European Parliament’s vote on the amendments to the Waste Framework Directive (WFD) and Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD),” she says, “EUROPEN wishes to make some recommendations for the Council of Ministers to consider during their negotiations.”

Internal affairs

The first action is to safeguard a strong internal market. The Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) voted to safeguard the internal market objective and legal base of the PPWD. EUROPEN strongly supports this outcome, which will preserve the single market for packaging and packaged goods. Nevertheless, ENVI introduced some new elements that might disrupt the internal market.

“EUROPEN’s recommendation is to ensure that the internal market is explicitly and consistently safeguarded in relation to measures such as packaging reuse and national waste reduction targets. Next is the extended producer responsibility (EPR) requirements for waste management that will increase transparency, cost-efficiency and accountability.

“It is vital that producers know what they are paying for, and that all stakeholders fulfil their respective roles and responsibilities. “EUROPEN welcomes the improvements that ENVI has made to the proposed EPR general requirements, in particular about efforts to demarcate producers’ responsibility with a closed list of costs.

“It is also encouraging that the roles and responsibilities of all actors will be defined at national levels, in line with the subsidiarity principle. EUROPEN suggests bringing further legal clarity to EPR’s definition and objectives, as well as ensuring that producers’ costs are proportionate in view of their nationally determined role and responsibility, and are based on the necessary and optimised cost of the services provided in cases where public waste management operators are responsible for implementing operational tasks on behalf of the EPR scheme.”

ENVI has voted to ban the incineration of separately collected waste, “with the exception of residue resulting from the sorting of that waste”, in addition to the ban on sending separately collected (packaging) waste to landfill.

“EUROPEN would like to see ‘residue’ clarified,” says Janssens. “Also, these stricter conditions require the retention
of separate collection in the waste framework directive review. This flexibility ensures an ultimate outlet to cater for those materials and formats that currently cannot be recycled. For instance, in the case of packaging, this can be due to technical functions for product/distribution needs, or the lack of recycling solutions today. This caveat ensures a life- cycle approach in the Adopted ENVI Compromise (amendment 30) of the proposed Directive amending Directive 1999/31/EC on the landfill of waste.”

This amendment states members states will take measures to promote high-quality recycling and will set up the relevant, separate collection of waste required to meet and exceed targets and quality standards as set out in article 11 in the current 2008 WFD4 in all member states.

EUROPEN recommends supporting the implementation and enforcement of separate collection as laid down in article 11 of the current 2008 WFD, along with the condition of technical, environmental and economic practicability.

Waste not

Finally, the ENVI has called for indicative reuse targets to be set at member-state level.  As Janssens concludes, “EUROPEN welcomes the indicative nature. In addition, it recommends establishing a harmonised approach for calculation methodologies, data collection, and verification and determining baselines, before introducing any new target. It also supports ENVI’s decision to maintain the current definition of ‘preparation for reuse’ in the WFD.

“This will allow the crediting of reuse efforts as follows: allowing member states to deduct reusable packaging from ‘packaging waste generated’ in order to calculate recycling rates, giving credit to those that have invested in reuse systems. This would make the data a more accurate reflection of reality, as it would mean that states would no longer report on ‘packaging placed on the market’ (all packaging) as a proxy for ‘packaging waste generated’ (which excludes reusable packaging).

“EUROPEN would consider a feasibility study prior to setting reuse targets with harmonised baseline, calculation methodology and data collection method; allow member states to deduct reusable packaging from ‘packaging waste generated’ in order to calculate recycling rates; and crediting those states that have invested in reuse systems.”

So far, there is a lot of promise in the circular economy, which is why it has the support of the brands, the government and consumers. However, this is clearly a process, rather than a single action, and it must develop organically if it is to succeed. The aims of the plan at its inception may well change as implementation and reality combine to forge a new, more adaptable scheme. Either way, it is a journey that will generate a great deal interest for the foreseeable future. 

The circular economy is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition for brands.

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