Packaging unwrapped

What does packaging look like in a truly sustainable, circular economy, and how do we get there? Phil Lattimore looks at how changes could affect everything from materials and design to supply chains and delivery models.

Come 2050, what will we think when we look back at how we used to consider packaging? By that landmark date in our battle against climate change, will the circular economy approach to sustainable and reusable product packaging be as common as single-use plastic disposability is now? If so, how do we get from where we are now to that circular place?

Packaging waste is a global problem that is continuing to grow. For example, Wrap’s Plastics Market Situation Report 2019 estimated that around 2.36 million tonnes of plastic packaging was placed on the UK market in 2017 – 1.53 million tonnes from the consumer sector and 0.83 million tonnes from the non-consumer sector (commercial, industrial, construction and demolition, and agriculture).

Only around 35 per cent of plastic packaging recycling actually takes place in the UK, so the country is reliant on export markets, which is becoming increasingly difficult as countries ban plastic imports

Of this, 1.6 million tonnes was estimated to be rigid plastic packaging, such as bottles, pots, tubs and trays, while 0.8 million tonnes was plastic film.

Although household plastic waste collected by local authorities was reportedly rising, only 550,000 tonnes were collected in 2017. Without adequate recycling infrastructure to handle the volume currently collected, however, only around 35 per cent of plastic packaging recycling actually takes place in the UK, so the country is reliant on export markets, which is becoming increasingly difficult as countries ban plastic imports.

While investment in plastics packaging recycling infrastructure has been rising, such a shortfall in domestic capacity means that improving consumer recycling rates alone is not the answer to an immediate problem: how do we make packaging sustainable and close the circular loop in the UK?


Sander Defruyt, new plastics economy lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, sees a shift to a circular model as a vital part of a broader solution, which involves fundamentally rethinking the way we design, use, and reuse plastics. ‘Treating the symptoms is simply not enough.

We must create a circular economy for plastic, in which it never becomes waste, by eliminating the plastics we don’t need, designing plastics to be reusable, recyclable or compostable, and innovating towards new business models and collection systems,’ he says.

While many of packaging’s negative aspects are often highlighted, it will, nonetheless, continue to play a vital role in a circular economy, says Gareth Morton, discovery manager at Ecosurety. ‘By default, it can increase resource efficiency – for example, through extending food-preservation times, or protecting valuable products.’

However, Morton adds: ‘Future systems and designers will need to look beyond “what” functions they perform to “how” and “why” they perform them. Taking a holistic view of the packaging’s life-cycle is an obvious place to start, but improvements will only come with a deeper understanding of consumer habits, coupled with a regulatory system with adequate incentives.’

A step-change away from single-use plastic is likely to require more than simple policy nudges, he says. ‘There is a huge amount of untapped potential in reusable packaging, but there will almost certainly remain a place for well-designed, recyclable packaging in the coming decades.

The challenge is to design new reusable systems – and there are many already in existence – improving recycling so used packaging is perceived as having value, and ceases to “leak” into the environment as litter.’

Plastics action

In April 2018, Wrap launched the UK Plastics Pact, with members signing up and agreeing to targets for plastic packaging for 2025, which include: eliminating single-use plastic packaging; 100 per cent of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable; 70 per cent of plastic packaging to be effectively recycled or composted; and 30 per cent average recycled content across all plastic packaging.

Helen Bird, strategic engagement manager for plastics at Wrap, explains: ‘We need as little packaging as possible, but as much as necessary – and where it is necessary, it must be recyclable and recycled, ideally back into packaging.’

She believes this will be achieved through a variety of actions and solutions, including by minimising packaging where it can be removed completely without negatively impacting the product – for example, in sales of multipack tinned foods.

‘Reusable/refillable packaging is really promising,’ Bird says, ‘and I believe it will be a feature of everyday shopping in the future. To get there, we need a significant amount of testing and collaboration.

“A number of UK Plastics Pact members have announced exciting trials – including, most recently, Asda – and we want to see much more of this. It is important that reuse/refill systems are accessible to all; they shouldn’t only be an option for the wealthy, but should be mainstream, and this will be a challenge for business to overcome.’

It’s important to understand there will always be an environmental trade-off between materials

Where packaging is required, it should always be designed to be recyclable, Bird adds. Importantly, the design should facilitate it to come back as the same item of packaging.

‘We have seen steady progress in this – for example, the move away from coloured drinks bottles to clear, such as Coca-Cola’s green Sprite bottle [now clear], and sparkling water now packaged in clear bottles as standard. Wider sustainability issues should also be considered on a case-by-case basis. But it’s important to understand there will always be an environmental trade-off between materials.’

The development of packaging and processes that enable circularity are also crucial, Bird says. ‘The packaging needs to be collected for recycling. It’s not enough for something to be “technically” recyclable; it needs to be recyclable in practice. This not only requires the collection system to be in place, but for citizens to play their part.’

In a circular model, of course, what was the ‘end’ point – recycling – is also the beginning of the process over again. Ensuring there is sufficient infrastructure to generate high-quality, non-virgin plastic for a new cycle of production demands investment, however, and a stable market environment to facilitate this.

‘Packaging needs to be recycled. The whole point of recycling is manufacture, or it’s pointless,’ Bird says. ‘End markets need long-term stability; in turn, this gives confidence to the recycling sector and its investors to develop the critical infrastructure required.

Further government policy is probably required to support this – and while we are currently reliant on export markets for plastics, this is not sustainable and needs to be addressed.’

Innovation upstream

In terms of how packaging develops and what it will look like in a circular economy, the conversation around waste and resources must move away from the ‘waste management’ focus.

Sara Wingstrand, innovation programme manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, says: ‘We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis; we need to move upstream and look at what is put on the market in the first place, so we can eliminate waste, not simply manage it better.

‘The circular economy allows us to redesign the entire plastics system to not only overcome the global challenge of plastic pollution, but to do so in a way that allows us to build better growth and create solutions at speed and scale. Designers and businesses are at the heart of this transition.’

Initiatives such as the Plastics Pact Network are aimed at bringing together national and regional schemes, as well as key stakeholders, to implement circular economy solutions for plastic packaging, tailored for each area. Its targets are to:

  • Eliminate unnecessary and problematic plastic packaging through redesign and innovation
  • Move from single-use to reuse
  • Ensure all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • Increase the reuse, collection, and recycling or composting of plastic packaging
  • Increase recycled content in plastic packaging.

Upstream innovation to create circular models for packaging can be seen in a growing number of solutions being developed. These range from the redesign of packaging to minimise waste and packaging solutions made from environmentally sustainable sources – such as biodegradable and edible materials – to the creation of packaging ‘ecosystems’ and new product formulations to foster reuse models for containers.

Novel solutions

Retailers are reformulating products into solids – such as Lush Cosmetics’ shampoo bar and toothpaste jellies – to reduce the need for bottles and other packaging

Ensuring new packaging materials are sustainable, and practically reusable or recyclable, is a challenge that a growing number of upstream innovators are addressing with a range of novel solutions.

For instance, edible substitutes for packaging have been developed. Start-up Apeel has created an edible coating made from plant-based materials that can extend the shelf-life of fresh fruit and vegetables without the need for packaging, and has launched lines with retailers including Walmart, Edeka and Kroger.

An edible coating made from natural silk has also been produced by Mori, while an edible and home-compostable capsule’, Ooho – developed by start-up Notpla – is made from seaweed and can be used to package individual beverages or takeaway condiments. Several other film replacements are in the pipeline.

Biotechnology is also being applied to packaging developments in a growing number of ways. Bioplastics that are either biobased (material sourced from natural, non-fossil-fuel resources) or compostable are being introduced by firms such as the UK’s Biome Bioplastics. It produces plant-based polymer that can be used for a variety of products, including flexible films.

Manufacturers are exploring options to cut down on plastics in packaging

While bioplastics offer potential for sustainable packaging solutions, Defruyt, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, points out that careful consideration must be given to ensuring renewable feedstocks from responsibly managed sources are used, while ‘compostable plastics must be coupled with collection and composting infrastructure to ensure packaging gets composted in practice’.

In addition to novel materials, we are seeing sustainable principles being applied to products in other ways, such as by minimising unnecessary packaging. A number of retailers – including Waitrose, M&S, Aldi and Asda in the UK – are trialling refill stations in-store, to reduce packaging. Others (Waitrose, Tesco) are introducing changes such as eliminating plastic film on multi-tin packs.

Manufacturers are exploring options to cut down on plastics in packaging, including the use of novel glues, rather than plastic rings, to hold together beer multipacks (Carlsberg), label-free bottles (Evian, Danone), and eliminating superfluous plastic seals, protective films and lids.

There is also a move towards mono-material packaging that makes separation and sorting for recycling considerably easier. A number of cosmetics producers, such as Lush, are also reformulating personal care products into solids, rather than liquids, to minimise the need for bottles and other packaging.

Policy reform

The development of innovative, disruptive ideas and new concepts around packaging, materials and processes may be important for accelerating the circular model. However, an environment that fosters and encourages investment in the circular economy is an essential part of the picture if the best ideas are to flourish.

For a circular economy in packaging, Defruyt says ‘we need dedicated, ongoing, and sufficient funding for collection, sorting and recycling – otherwise the economics simply do not stack up – it costs more to do than the money it makes’.

He believes the only proven way to provide the necessary funding ‘is through schemes where the companies putting packaging on the market are required to pay for its collection, sorting and recycling’.

On 24 March, the government published the second round of proposals on packaging extended producer responsibility (EPR) – where producers are incentivised, through ‘modulated’ fees paid for packaging placed on the market, to reduce unnecessary and hard-to-recycle packaging and use more recyclable packaging – and a deposit return scheme for beverage containers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

EPR is ‘the biggest and best tool in the arsenal to facilitate a transition’

These will fundamentally change the end-of-life management of packaging and, taken alongside measures on collection consistency – the consultation for which was published on 7 May – could allow the UK to recycle 78 per cent of packaging waste by 2030.

Bird agrees that, within a regulatory framework, EPR and a plastics tax can play important roles in creating an environment for packaging innovation. ‘If correctly designed and executed, EPR will drive business towards more recyclable – and, in the longer term, reusable – packaging,’ she says.

‘However, we can’t rely only on EPR; it will not drive citizen behaviour change and it is unlikely to address climate change issues associated with different types of packaging.’

Morton believes EPR is ‘the biggest and best tool in the arsenal to facilitate a transition’. He says: ‘Consumer pressure over the past decade has had a limited impact on reuse, recycling and design improvements. While there has been some progress, a shift to producers being responsible for the full net cost of packaging is the only way to motivate them to provide longer-term, circular solutions.’

In future circular economic systems, much more thought needs to be given to how products and materials are used for as long as possible, and then kept in the system through recycling, Morton adds.

‘For far too long, governments and industry have designed, manufactured, marketed and used, without any consideration for what happens afterwards. Fundamentally this must change.’

In the Loop

Loop’s glass and metal containers are designed to be cleaned and reused multiple times

As well as upstream innovation to create circular models for packaging, some large enterprises are reimagining how packaging can become circular.

Loop is a high-profile example of a circular deposit/return solution aimed at eliminating packaging waste. The initiative – formed as a partnership between recycling firm TerraCycle and more than 25 global consumer product manufacturers – launched in 2019: in the US with Kroger and Walgreens, and in France with supermarket giant Carrefour.

In 2020, Loop also launched online pilots with Tesco in the UK and Loblaws in Canada, and, in June 2021, in the first AEON stores in Japan.

Working with retail manufacturers, Loop has developed attractive, durable, reusable containers – made from glass and metal – that are designed to be cleaned and reused. The distribution model includes deposits for the products, with the consumer reimbursed on return of the container.

A growing range of household brands are available via Loop in the UK, including Heinz ketchup, Danone yoghurt, Tropicana orange juice, Ecover detergent, Coca-Cola, Yorkshire Tea and Nivea face cream.

The Loop concept is now partnered with more than 200 consumer product companies and a dozen retailers, with upcoming pilot trials of reusable cups and packaging with restaurant chains including McDonald’s and Burger King.

Flexible Plastic Fund

Working in collaboration with leading brands and environmental charity, Hubbub, Ecosurety’s Flexible Plastic Fund has created to improve flexible plastic recycling and reduce plastic pollution by giving the material a stable value, using a packaging recovery note (PRN) ‘pricing boost’ to enhance the value of flexible plastic and encourage more of it to be recycled.

Flexible plastic represented 22 per cent of all UK consumer plastic packaging in 2019, but only six per cent was recycled and, currently, only 16 per cent of local authorities offer flexible plastic collection.

Flexible plastic represented 22 per cent of all UK consumer plastic packaging in 2019, but only six per cent was recycled and, currently, only 16 per cent of local authorities offer flexible plastic collection.

The fund will guarantee a minimum value of £100 per tonne of recycled product to incentivise recyclers to process flexible plastic such as plastic bags, wrappers, films, pouches, packets and sachets.

To date, five fast-moving consumer goods manufacturers – Mars UK, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever – plus two retailers – Sainsbury’s and Waitrose – and four recyclers are involved in the fund, which will result in more post-consumer flexible plastic being recycled.

The fully audited and traceable scheme will ensure recyclers will only be paid if the plastic is definitely recycled, with at least 80 per cent of the plastics collected recycled in the UK – rising to 100 per cent by 2023. The manufacturers contributing to the Flexible Plastic Fund will then be able to access the PRNs generated by this high-quality, tracked recycling scheme.

This article first appeared in the July/August issue of Circular.

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