One of the main aims of the circular economy is to keep resources in use for as long as possible. That is also the prime purpose of packaging: it maintains product value for as long as necessary and helps eliminate product waste.
This role is more important today than ever as the world faces increasingly complex challenges. Packaging helps resolve many of these:
To date, various discussions on the circular economy have focused on designing for recycling, reuse and recycled content and the circular use of what’s visible – the materials – rather than all of the resources used to produce both the package and its contents.
This trend to prioritise end-of-life parameters is dangerous because it risks shifting environmental impact from one part of the life cycle to another. It is the proverbial tail wagging the dog: what happens to packaging after use is important, but how it performs its role of preventing product waste is much more important because, on average, over ten times more resources are invested in products than in their packaging.
Design for recycling is one consideration, but design for product protection, design for maximum lorry loads, design for efficient stacking in depots, design for fast filling speeds, design for efficient use and many other practical, functional requirements are equally, if not more, important.
All these considerations have environmental implications: fewer lorries or trucks on the road means less congestion, fewer particulates, better health; smaller or fewer depots use less land; faster filling speeds require less energy.
Energy and water use are often greatest at the consumer use stage of a product’s lifecycle – clever dosing or dispensing systems help consumers use just the right amount and thereby reduce impact. These and other factors have to be assessed against each other and the optimum solution chosen.
Manufacturers and retailers, working with other parts of the supply system, must balance all these considerations when they design packaging to find the best compromise.
Sometimes they will prioritise end of life parameters. For example, soft drinks are the only food group where it takes more energy to make the packaging (46%) than the product (26%). The functional aspects of packaging are important – containing and preserving the drinks and retaining carbonation. However, in order to offset the high energy use to make the packaging, it is no coincidence that drinks containers are specifically designed for recycling and are typically the most widely recycled type of packaging.
In other instances it is more important to prioritise other stages. Rearing and processing meat accounts for more than half (63%) of the energy in the supply chain. Packaging’s critical function is to protect this significant investment; whether it can be reused or recycled after it has delivered the meat is of much less importance.
Supply chain companies need sufficient flexibility to be able to innovate, develop new materials and design better packaging to make supply systems more resource-efficient and more responsive to the demands of rapidly changing societies.
The European Commission’s Circular Economy Package is due to be published in early December. Let’s hope it is genuinely progressive and that it places as much emphasis on the functional aspects of packaging as on end-of-life considerations.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2021
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