Purposeful packaging for the circular products revolution requires out-of-the-box thinking

Step by step. Product by product. Standard by standard. Consumer by consumer. That is what it will take to re-engineer our take-make-dispose economy so it is "restorative and regenerative by design, keeping products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles," according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Two centuries ago, the Industrial Revolution began in Britain and today, we witness — and live with — its benefits and shortcomings. What's painfully clear is that we can’t afford to wait another 200 years to make our industrial economy "circular." The biodiversity and climate change impacts of not going circular are dire. Conversely, the economic advantages of the circular economy are so significant — with the potential to unlock $4.5 trillion of economic growth — that we cannot afford a delay.

Considerable innovation is required to rethink the systems and functions in product and packaging value chains and lifecycles to enable 9 billion of us to live well on a planet by 2050.

One potential solution space is international standards. They provide specifications for products, services and systems to facilitate international trade and ensure quality, safety and efficiency. We refer here to the International Standards Organization (ISO), which has more than 20,000 international standards covering most industries. The ISO reviews standards every five years to keep them up-to-date. In 2016, ISO published 1,381 standards: At this rate, it will take about two decades to renew all international standards with the intent to incorporate circular principles.

Heavy lifting is needed now

We recently collaborated on the update of one such standard, the 2003 edition of ISO/IEC Guide 41: "Packaging — Recommendations for Addressing Consumer Needs," which provides information on considerations that should be taken when determining packaging for consumer goods.

ISO/IEC Guide 41 provides guidance related to the choice of packaging to protect vulnerable goods at the point of sale. It is intended to reduce prices for consumers by minimizing unneeded packaging and increasing the percentage of goods that reach consumers in good repair, safeguarding them from potential hazards.

We focused our input on "sustainable packaging" and "circular packaging" features within the constraints of the existing guideline. The updated standard likely will adequately address resource conservation, emissions reduction and the 3 Rs: "reduce, reuse and recycle." There likely also will be recognition of the opportunity of using renewable and recycled content packaging materials to stimulate markets for these inputs.

Advancing circularity through a packaging standard, however, has significant limitations. The focus is on the function of the package design and doesn't capture the concept of package design being part of a whole system where the concept of waste is entirely rethought — and designed out.

To contemplate packaging in the context of a circular economy requires a much larger scope than such a standard typically can provide. A packaging material made from a renewable source may not mean that it is recyclable or compostable at every touchpoint that the packaging is sold. Ensuring "packaging circularity" demands a more dynamic and holistic approach.

Solutions will come from inventors and social innovators

Embracing out-of-the-box thinking can lead to new and collaborative opportunities to design waste out and incorporate the package as part of a whole system. For example, in-store packaging return programs and deposit schemes are still relevant today and can be applied in new ways.  A Vancouver Island dairy offers customers the option to purchase milk on tap while selling reusable milk bottles separately. 

Rethinking packaging possibilities is what led the partnership between Procter & Gamble and TerraCycle to produce the Fairy Ocean Plastic bottle, made with 100 percent recycled plastic (90 percent post-consumer and 10 percent ocean plastic). Not only does this packaging help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but it also raises consumer awareness of ocean plastic pollution. 

So, how do you start to assess circular packaging if you cannot rely on standards alone? Start by taking a closer look at your entire product-package value chain and determine the inputs (energy and material resources) and outputs (emissions and waste). Ask yourself these key questions:

  • What data is missing, if any?
  • Where do the biggest impacts occur?
  • What improvements can be made?
  • What are the trade-offs?

Numerous life cycle assessment (LCA) tools and industry resources are available to assist you with your packaging sustainability strategy. Speak to your packaging industry association for further educational tips and tools.

Convenience-driven design often leads to heedless packaging — and overpackaging. You have only to look at the amount of valuable packaging materials in our landfills for evidence of this. But reimagining and reengineering our take-make-dispose economy is possible with full circle, disruptive thinking: step by step. Product by product. Standard by standard. Consumer by consumer.

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