Linear to circular: The urgent need for a regenerative industrial system


Circular economy

As industry stakeholders increasingly use sustainability measures as a metric for success, a mindset shift is required to consider circular economy principles as part of wider business health, explains Roberto Franchitti, Tetra Pak’s Executive Vice President and Business Unit Head for Tetra Pak’s Services Organisation.

2023 has been a record-breaking year of the worst kind: the hottest summer, the highest ocean surface temperature, and the lowest Antarctic Sea cover on record. As the environmental impact of human activities becomes increasingly evident, the call for transformation must be heeded.

What’s required is a new industrial system; one which is intentionally designed to regenerate materials, creating a “circular” system that improves – rather than depletes or merely sustains – its ecosystem.

For many businesses, this means moving away from the linear “take-make-waste” systems of the past, still in place for an overwhelming majority of companies. Astonishingly, only 8.6% of the global economy currently operates on circular principles.

If we are to expect organisations to address their climate impact, it is perhaps worth clarifying why doing so makes good business sense. How can companies successfully integrate circular economy principles and, in the process, support the business by increasing efficiency and reducing waste?

Reverse and restore

Nature woodland

In 2021, the United Nations declared the 2020s the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, emphasising the need for on-the-ground action to promote nature-based land revitalisation. This was a call for the global community to undertake collective action to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) provides a blueprint for this. This globally recognised organisation collaborates with industry giants including Amazon, Microsoft and McDonald’s (and Tetra Pak), helping them to safeguard forest management practices and ensure supply chain sustainability.

By championing sustainable forestry practices, FSC is helping the 1,200 businesses it partners with to reduce their negative environmental impact and take meaningful steps towards a regenerative economy. 

The inclusion of a well-recognised accreditation also makes commercial sense. 53% of consumers say that if a brand has environmentally sound packaging, they are more likely to consider it and 41% say they always or usually give preference to FSC-certified products. By communicating sustainability credentials to the consumer, businesses can help them to play their part in transforming the system. 

Innovating with global waste

Kerbside food waste

Currently, an astonishing 2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste are generated annually, making the need for change urgent. This doesn’t just mean using less – innovative repurposing can also be employed to have a positive impact on this global waste pile, reducing the demand on virgin resources.

This is something that forward-thinking companies are embracing, harnessing collective intelligence to tackle sustainability issues more effectively.

This approach can also be applied across the value chain. At Tetra Pak, we have worked with beer producers to convert their spent grain (a side stream of the brewing process previously used as animal feed or sent to landfill) into a nutritious consumer food product.

Not only does this reduce waste, but by selling this ingredient to other food manufacturers or creating new products themselves, it can generate efficiencies for the business. Similarly, we have partnered with EnginZyme to convert large volumes of acid whey produced from fresh cheese – around 22,500m litres annually – into an added-value ingredient such as fibre. 

A united front


What these examples show is the power of collective action, drawing on expertise from across the world of commerce, academia and beyond to realise a full-scale regenerative system. After all, what a start-up might lack in resources or experience can be provided by partnering with a larger enterprise, which in turn will benefit from the start-up’s innovative thinking and agile working practices.

At Tetra Pak, we work with some game-changing start-ups, as well as fostering partnerships with the likes of Lund University, most recently launching Biotech Heights, a new research hub that will explore food and materials production using bioprocessing to create useful products from living cells or cell components.

Meaningful change demands cohesive support, a shared commitment from governments, policymakers, and consumers, and the active engagement of visionary companies and their leaders. Transparency is key. When there is formalised legislation, target setting and strategies in place, each stakeholder understands not just the role they play, but will be able to draw on the support available to facilitate this.

Spearheading the shift

Circular cities

The prospect of overhauling a linear operating system may appear daunting. However, it’s businesses that embrace it as an opportunity for creative thinking that will secure their future, with each step taken towards a circular economy contributing to a more sustainable business – and world.

This is particularly true in the packaging industry. With packaging materials often labelled as “waste”, it is easy to assume that the industry is inherently uncircular. This is not the case – at Tetra Pak, we now build packaging with “multiple lives” in mind.

Through recycling and repurposing innovations, turning used packaging into new high-quality resources and goods, the industry has the opportunity to provide a roadmap on how to “close the loop” for other sectors.

Embracing this shift provides businesses with the opportunity to positively impact both their own future and that of the planet, inspiring a global shift towards a more regenerative and circular economy for us all.

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