Taking control

Written by: Phil Davidson | Published:
Phil Davidson, senior manager sustainability, Europe & Asia, at HAVI

Phil Davidson, senior manager sustainability, Europe & Asia, at HAVI, a specialist in packaging, supply chain and waste management, takes a look at how waste and recycling are shaping the circular economy.

‘Circular economy’ is a phrase we are hearing increasingly often. Simply defined, this is about using resources for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them while in use, then recovering and regenerating these materials as they approach the end of their lifespan. It remains a highly relevant issue that dominates the national news agenda and has implications for policy-setters, businesses, employees and future generations alike.

Dame Ellen MacArthur, for example, is a prominent advocate of the circular economy. She recently launched her Foundation’s New Plastic Economy $2m innovation prize, with a direct appeal to companies who must work with each other to contribute to the “long game” of transitioning to the circular economy. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are supporters of this new global action plan to recycle and re-use 70% of the world's plastic packaging.

Making the transition

Meanwhile in Brussels, the EU has begun negotiations for the Circular Economy Package. This aims to help European businesses and consumers to make this transition, in accordance with waste and recycling targets, to ensure that products made can be used more effectively. The proposed actions will contribute to "closing the loop" of product lifecycles through greater recycling and re-use, and bring benefits to the environment and the economy.

At the heart of supporting a circular economy is how we deal with our waste and recycling. A recent report from Green Alliance championed the ‘pay-as-you-throw’ approach, charging for household waste collections, based on the amount of waste produced. These charges could be introduced as a way of encouraging consumers to pay more attention to the rubbish they throw out, and more broadly to their consumption and waste disposal habits.

The use of new materials will also be significant, as companies increasingly shift from using non-recyclable plastics such as polystyrene to using recyclable PET and bio PET – taking them that one step further to achieving zero waste. Bio PET is an environmental and technological breakthrough that will allow companies to source plastic made from rapidly regenerating plants and agro-waste.

New beginnings

In order to put the circular economy into practice, there needs to be a new beginning for one product that comes from the end of another. Sky, for example, now ensures that satellite boxes can be re-used and claims to be saving £7 million a year by repairing and refurbishing satellite boxes instead of disposing them.

The Co-op supermarket chain in the UK, meanwhile, has made a promise to update its packaging, introducing clearer labelling that makes it easier for consumers and waste managers to differentiate items. Through clear labelling, every package that can be recycled will be identified. And going beyond even its own immediate operations, Asda now helps its suppliers find ways to use resources more efficiently, helping those suppliers save over £4 million in one year and protecting its future supply chain as a result.

At a practical level, difficulties remain when it comes to such large-scale upheaval of resource use. Recycling restaurant packaging, for instance, remains a significant challenge due to the mobility of the product – and systems do not yet exist on a national or global basis to recycle foodservice packaging.

Medium-term measures

And so, while transforming packaging to become an entirely sustainable factor in the consumption of goods is the longer-term goal, other medium-term measures should not be ignored to help during this transitional period. Some businesses with a global footprint have begun exploring opportunities to transform packaging scraps and waste into regenerated packaging material – and in some cases, harnessing the produced waste and repurposing into the production of packaging and products.

Sustainability groups continue to lament the lack in provision of recycling services in countries like the UK, while in the US research shows consumers are still worried that many of the recyclables they place in recycling bins still end up in landfill. The problem is worse still in developing regions, and becomes clear when viewed at a global level: United Nations data suggests that half the world’s population lack crucial waste management services, significantly harming environment, health and economies as a result. Without the necessary infrastructure, many recyclable products simply cannot re-enter the value stream – meaning circular economy efforts will fall short.

It seems almost too simplistic to point out that creating a circular economy, which relies on cyclical resources and zero waste, is the right thing to do. In an ideal world, that would be enough. But realistically, a successful transition will be driven by a multitude of forces working together – industry innovation will have little impact unless all stakeholders address the role of waste management infrastructure and consumer behaviour.

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