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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
New Cross-Sector Collaborations Delve Into Circular Packaging Solutions

Newly formed groups in Europe and Canada are working to deliver a circular economy for packaging materials: PlasticsEurope has created a Plastics Packaging Circular Economy Group to maximize resource efficiency across the plastics value chain; and Ontario’s Circular Economy Innovation Lab is hosting a series of workshops as part of a Printed Paper and Packaging Rapid Lab.

Trade association PlasticsEurope says that it will be engaging with the industry value chain through its new working group. The organization aims to enable further innovations in the resource efficiency of plastics while ensuring their recycling and preventing waste leakage into the environment.

“Life cycle thinking is at the heart of our actions. The circular economy proposals should also aim to bring environmental benefits over the product’s full life cycle; it is only through the lens of resource efficiency that new approaches and holistic packaging solutions will be developed,” Karl-H. Foerster, the executive director at PlasticsEurope.

“We increased our resources on packaging activities with the creation of a new Plastics Packaging Group to contribute towards a resource efficient circular economy,” he added. “Our industry is committed to a sustainable future within a low-carbon economy and we will continue to increase our engagement with the plastics value-chain towards this common goal.”

Shortly after the announcement of the new plastics packaging group, the organization also announced a new collaboration with the European Plastics Converters Association and Plastics Recyclers Association to drive Europe’s Polyolefins-based packaging recycling efforts. Industry actors are invited to join them through the new Polyolefin Circular Economy Platform (PCEP). The collaborators have identified several priority areas of work, including:

  • Development of packaging design guidelines and assessment protocols according to the principles of the circular economy;
  • Innovation to increase the recyclability of flexible and rigid packaging;
  • European Union-wide quality standards for sorted plastics, harmonisation of tests methods for recycled plastic materials and certification of plastic recycling operations;
  • Innovation & development of end-use markets to encourage demand for recycled plastics;
  • Stimulating innovation to improve mechanical recycling, conversion technologies and reuse; and
  • Drive the research and development of new technologies to convert non-mechanically recyclable plastics into feedstock for the production of new materials.

The platform is expected to work for a 5 to 10-year horizon and use science-based solutions to help achieve the challenging 55 percent plastic packaging “preparing for reuse and recycling” target by 2025, as outlined in the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package.

Meanwhile, a series of workshops focused on developing a shared vision for the future of paper and packaging materials in a circular economy in Ontario is already underway. It is the first of several “Rapid Labs” that the recently-formed Circular Economy Innovation Lab (CEIL) plans to host; each Rapid Lab will be an intensive, short-term process that will focus on a specific issue or aspect of the broader transition to a circular economy in the province.

The 2016 Printed Paper and Packaging Rapid Lab selected participants from different sectors and value chains to reflect the diversity of actors involved in the production, sales, use and management of the materials being discussed. Government officials are joined by executives and other representatives from Unilever, Nestle, IKEA, Waste Management, Cascades Recovery, Canadian Tire, Celestica, other companies, municipal waste services and associations, and the Packaging Consortium (PAC).

Printed paper and packaging were selected for the first Rapid Lab due to their prevalence in day-to-day life and impact across every sector and level of the economy. The materials under this umbrella are diverse – from bills, brochures and greeting cards to take-out food packaging, plastic films and aluminum foil – and as such are influenced by a number of factors. To name but a few, the diversity of materials, changing composition of waste, and market and economic issues such as overcapacity, low prices, high raw material costs and volatile commodity markets, are among the concerns.

Ontario has a long history of successful diversion of recyclable and compostable materials, with an overall rate over 60 percent, but the province’s recently-introduced new waste management and extended producer responsibility legislation embodies regulatory evolution that adds to the situation’s complexity.

The first workshop, which took place on October 5, was intended to lay the foundation for the Rapid Lab and identify and discuss potential challenges and opportunities the circular economy presents for printed. Next, this week (October 25-27), the participants are developing a shared vision and agenda through the adoption of The Natural Step’s back-casting approach. Participants are expected to develop some initial prototype ideas for joint action and innovation pathways that can help realize a circular economy in Ontario. Finally, on December 6, participants will finalize the vision and innovation pathways, prioritize prototypes for implementation, and determine next steps for collaboration.

Additional Rapid Labs are planned for some time after March 2017, although CEIL has not yet announced for which materials or industries. The Natural Step has also eluded to future plans for a Fellowship program and other workshops, events and tools for businesses, governments and the general public.