Packaging for the Circular Economy

In a circular economy, waste does not exist. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, this concept shifts away from the current “take-make-dispose” linear model and mimics natural processes, in which by-products feed back into the system in a circular fashion. It is a “closed-loop” process that designs out waste and pollution, keeps products and materials in use, and regenerates natural systems.

This circular economy model is good for both business and the environment since it uses resources more efficiently. Adjusting operations to align with the concept is also likely to connect with environmentally-concerned customers, a benefit that many brands have recognized. For example, Walmart has recently announced “zero waste” initiatives and Coca-Cola has committed to collecting and recycling its packaging, as well as increasing bottles to 50% recycled plastic by 2020. Unilever also states that their goal is “to move towards a more circular economy, designing products so that more packaging either remains in loops or has the best possible opportunity to be recycled”.

For packaging manufacturers, the time is right to transition to more sustainable materials and waste-reducing features. Concern for sustainability and the environment has been present in many consumers’ minds for quite some time now, and it is only growing. In a recent Mintel report, two main 2018 packaging trends related to sustainability were highlighted: packaging that reduces food waste and packaging that reduces plastic in the oceans. Compostable and recyclable packaging and are also gaining momentum.

Packaging that Reduces Food Waste

Customers are increasingly concerned with wasting food, and packaging can help to prevent it from going bad or becoming damaged. Individual portions, sealing techniques, and protective materials can all help ensure food gets eaten. In a 2016 U.S. Mintel study, 80% of respondents said that reducing food waste is as important as reducing packaging waste. Fifty-four percent would pay more for added packaging features such as resealable and portion-control, and 56% said they would choose one package over another if it better prevented food from going bad. Sixty-one percent of Canadian fruit and vegetable buyers say they would be interested in packaging that keeps food fresh longer. Expiration, sell-by, and best before dates on packaging can also create confusion. Sainsbury’s is addressing this issue with their new deli meat packaging that changes color to indicate product freshness.

Mintel Prediction: “The throwaway culture of today will evolve into one that understands and embraces the role of packaging as a primary means to reduce global food and product waste.”

Packaging that Reduces Plastic in Oceans

Plastic in the oceans has received a lot of media attention as of late. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. While plastic durability is an advantage when it contains a product, it becomes a problem once it has been discarded. It is a material that traps wildlife and eventually breaks down into smaller pieces to make its way into the food chain. Several brands, such as Method and Ecover (Belgium), have started to use plastic recovered from the ocean to help reduce the amount of plastic generated. In 2017, P&G introduced Head & Shoulders packaging made with recovered plastic.

Mintel prediction: “Plastic packaging adrift in the world’s oceans will become the catalyst driving brands to rethink packaging in a context that consumers can understand and act upon.”

Compostable Packaging

While compostable packaging materials may not directly fuel the creation of new packaging, it feeds back into natural systems from which we extract resources. Innovative alternatives to plastic that are bio-degradable and toxin-free, such as the materials used by award-winning start-up Sulapac, can help solve the problem of nearly indestructible plastic.

Recyclable Packaging

If not compostable, it is important to consider the destruction of packaging before it is created. This last phase will close the loop in the system and bring previously-used materials back into the manufacturing process. According to Unilever, thoughtful design for disassembly and reassembly can help make use of post-consumer recycled waste. The company also plans to use 100% recyclable plastic by 2025. Another challenge is to clearly communicate the recyclability of packaging on product and consider human behavior to ensure that consumers participate in the process.

These trends show that there has been a shift in business operations and packaging towards a more circular economy. Packaging that reduces both food waste and plastic in the oceans, made from recyclable or compostable materials, contributes to a more environmentally friendly model. Through packaging innovation, brands can help contribute to positive change, reduce their production costs, and meet customer demands for a more sustainable future.