A circular economy for plastics is achievable in our lifetime, though it will require consumers and manufacturers to work together. Whether companies decide to keep it in-house or partner with like-minded third parties, an investment in our future now will lead to more profitable operations and create relentless forward progress.
California recently joined eight other states in passing one of the nation’s most comprehensive laws geared toward phasing out single-use plastics and alleviating other plastic packaging waste. Much like plastic bans that have swept across Europe, the US is now on track to hold corporations and consumers accountable for their plastic waste production.
This is a critical step for the US — considering it alone accounts for 40 million tons — or about 10 percent of the world’s plastic waste — a year. Unfortunately, only five to six percent of that was recycled in 2021. The remainder ends up in landfills or dumpsites; or as litter in public, forests and waterways.
As California helps to set the tone in plastic recycling practices, corporations will need to forge ahead of mandates to build circular processes into production and packaging of goods. Although companies can expect obstacles in consumer education and access to recyclable materials and adequate recycling infrastructure, a circular economy for packaging can be achieved simply by relying on the old adage of “reduce, reuse and recycle.”
Innovations reducing waste
With packaging, many brands go overboard — using unnecessary materials when they could take a more minimalist approach. There is an idea that extra packaging is extra insurance to protect products in transport, make them more noticeable on shelves, and provide more space to communicate details to consumers. Ironically, what is designed to attract consumers may deter them from purchasing a product. A study found 55 percent of US survey respondents are extremely or very concerned about the environmental impact of product packaging and could start to avoid items they perceive as overpackaged.
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Because of this shift in consumer priorities, the challenge facing many brands is to strategically and holistically determine what specific materials and packaging designs are both essential and best suited to serve those purposes without creating a system of excess waste.
Strategic partnerships can help hold brands accountable. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Plastics Commitment, for example, is aimed at eliminating all unnecessary packaging with an absolute reduction of over 10 percent in virgin plastic by 2025 versus 2020. Freudenberg Home and Cleaning Solutions (FHCS) signed onto the commitment and, from 2019 to 2021, has reduced packaging weight by 180 metric tons (a 10 percent reduction in total weight) by taking a holistically sustainable approach to packaging in order to reanalyze design and plastic content.
Brands can and should also look beyond finished packaging and consider transport packaging as well. FHCS is in the process of changing its transportation shrink wrap to recycled material and, at the same time, will reduce its thickness by as much as 75 percent.
Rethinking and reusing
We are seeing more and more companies explore the idea of reusable products for their customers; but packaging for internal shipments can be viewed in the same way.
The first step in creating a packaging reuse system is developing the proper guidelines that advise employees on how to open the package, save it, and then reuse it when shipping something new. Where feasible, Freudenberg has invested in returnable transport boxes within and between factory sites to drastically reduce single-use materials when transporting products internally.
Reusing internal shipping materials can make a dramatic impact on reducing the carbon footprint of any company. It is important with reusing packaging, though, to consider the overall carbon footprint of each transaction. Elaborate reuse schemes that require multiple distribution networks or extensive deep cleaning of the packaging before reuse can sometimes have a larger carbon footprint than other potential solutions presented.
Educate, recycle, repeat
Recycled raw materials are getting more difficult to find. There is a lack of consumer education around how to properly recycle certain materials, while Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) are working on tight budgets to sift through non-recyclable goods — creating an overall recycled materials shortage. Corporations have an opportunity to consider creatively partnering with MRFs to help with funding. The Green Dot is a symbol used on packaging in some European markets to signify a producer has made a financial contribution to a packaging recovery system, which enables the sorting, recycling and recovery of their packaging at its end of life.
Still, there are numerous alternatives on the market that consist of recycled materials and can be recycled themselves. A common alternative in packaging that was popular in replacing styrofoam is chipboard, made of 100 percent recycled paper. Alternatively, chipboard cartons can be used to replace single-use plastic polybags in products that allow for it. In general, mono-materials have risen in popularity as products that are composed of a single type of material are typically easier to recycle.
Plastic alternatives are not without both benefits and drawbacks. Depending on their carbon footprint, how they are sourced and how they decompose, it’s important to know there are times when recyclable plastic better fits packaging needs than paper, for instance.
While we cannot guarantee recycling of our packaging happens because of consumer habits or lack of recycling systems, FHCS continues to strive to design all packaging for recyclability. FHCS’ goal is to be 100 percent designed for recyclability; currently, almost 80 percent of our plastic packaging is recyclable and will soon increase to 90 percent.
Programs & resources
Developing circular processes starts at the top. A sustainable vision should be built into your business strategy, rather than just creating an ‘alternate’ line to appease consumers. Under this shared vision, companies can find success in starting up an internal sustainability task force of volunteers to bridge the gap between different departments or even designating roles at their corporations for sustainability experts; after working in various positions at Freudenberg for the past two decades, I stepped into my role as the Global Senior Director of Sustainability — which allows me to focus on my interest in sustainable operations.
Of course, companies don’t have to venture on the path toward sustainability alone. There are excellent resources and partners, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and many more, that help corporations looking to reduce their packaging footprint.
Coming full circle
The process of reducing the global footprint of plastic packaging will come down to education combined with action. A circular economy for plastics is achievable in our lifetime, though it will require consumers and manufacturers to work together. Whether organizations decide to take these efforts in-house or partner with like-minded third parties, we hold a responsibility to continue to innovate. Overall, an investment in our future now will lead to more profitable operations in the long run and create relentless forward progress.