The Importance of a Circular Packaging Ecosystem
By Rob Huffman
The time is now to adopt wide-scale sustainability initiatives throughout our businesses. We do not have the luxury to take our time, we do not have the luxury of simply talking the talk. We need to take action, and do so in a meaningful way that will do good for the world around us – all the while driving more streamlined, profitable business operations, leaving everyone happy.
COVID-19 brought the environment into even sharper focus. With pollution clearing in many cities around the world, sheep spotted venturing into villages quieted by isolation measures, and birdsong intensifying just about everywhere, people saw what our environment could sound and look like. On the flip side, we saw an increase in extreme weather events like never before – whether it was heat waves across the Midwest that knocked out the power grid, or wildfires in California, or hurricanes powerful enough to ravage New Orleans and New York City alike. People are starting to feel the awesome impact the environment can have on our lives.
Something needs to change. But encouragingly enough, consumers around the world recognize this need and are ready to take action to reduce their environmental footprint.
So – how do we do it?
The issue at hand
Packaging waste is the poster child for corporate sustainability, or lack thereof. Excess, unnecessary, non recyclable packaging is instantly noticeable and in many cases is the first thing you see in a product. This willingness to go a more sustainable route in packaging is backed up by Trivium’s 2021 Packaging Buying Green Report, in which 73% of more than 15,000 everyday consumers reported they were willing to pay a premium for eco-friendly packaging.
The demand is there, the willingness is there – so what is the hold up?
The difference between “recyclable” and “circular”
There is a common misunderstanding in what these two words mean, specifically as it relates to sustainability initiatives. In theory, most materials can be recycled, but in reality, it is much more nuanced than that. Some materials, like plastics, deteriorate when they are recycled and can very often only be recycled 2-3 times before ending up in a landfill or in an incinerator. Other materials, like steel, aluminum, and glass, are at the other end of the spectrum and can be recycled forever. That’s a massive difference – and it’s the forever part that makes a material circular as opposed to “just” recyclable.
Another key difference between materials is the recycling infrastructure. Even if a material can technically be recycled, the infrastructure may not be in place to actually recycle it. Again, much ends up in a landfill, in an incinerator, or in our waterways.
Metal cans are a great example of a packaging material that is both circular and have high actual recycling rates. According to a recent whitepaper by Trivium Packaging – “Protect, Promote, Preserve” – up to 80% of all metals every produced today are still available or in use because they recycle forever without any loss of quality. It’s also due to the fact that steel and aluminum enjoy well over 60% recycling rates globally (in Europe it’s significantly higher).
On the other hand, packaging which is mixed or composite (packaging made from layers of different materials bonded together) is very often difficult to separate into its individual component materials in order to be deemed recyclable. More times than not, the entire package ends up in a landfill.
Despite consumers having a desire to be environmentally responsible, many companies are not making it easy for them to do so. If people want to do the right thing, we need to make it easy. The infrastructure doesn’t just need to make it easier for you and me to drop off bags of recyclables, but it also needs to efficiently process the recycled material and quickly get it back into the infinitely recyclable loop.
We have a labeling problem when it comes to recycling
Let’s face it – it is far too difficult for the everyday person to make sense of the more than 450 environmental labels in use over 199 countries and 25 industry sectors. As a result, consumers often misunderstand, overlook, or even encounter “recycling fatigue” when trying to make their best judgement on if a material is fit for recycling or not. An eye-opening report from Packaging World reports that, in the United States, 38% of consumers stated they have “no idea” which recycling numbers printed on packaging are associated with easier recyclability.
The lack of simple, universal labeling standards in combination with mixed messaging leaves the public without any idea of what to do – even if their intentions are there.
How do we fix all of this?
Companies must take it upon themselves to have clear, educational communication which empowers the consumer with the information they need to make an informed decision. As stated above, the desire to be eco-friendly is there. It is the company’s responsibility to share the necessary information with the consumer so they can act upon their desires. With clearer, more direct communication, consumers can make decisions which more closely align with their personal beliefs and needs.
Trivium is leading by example when it comes to environmental responsibility and we feel that other companies in the packaging industry need to step up and provide the full story. We can’t stop when the story becomes inconvenient, difficult, or when it doesn’t fit our corporate messages or the compartmentalized interests of an industry. With a more holistic communication, we can make better packaging decisions and use materials for the purpose they are best suited.
Additionally, it is critically important that companies inform their customers about the differences between items that are recyclable, and items that have a full circular lifecycle. A staggering amount of the public does not know the difference, and once supplied the information, there is little doubt they will begin voting with their dollar for products which more closely align with their beliefs for a fully circular product lifecycle.
Lastly – we must realize that not all materials are created equal. Certainly, not all packaging is created equal. Most everyone knows about the harm of single use plastics, but the nuanced discussion of mixed recyclables and infinite recyclability is lagging behind. As companies who are at the forefront of sustainability innovation continue to push the narrative forward, public demand will follow – creating a deafening voice for companies to align to their desires for a greener, healthier future for all of us.
Rob Huffman is the chief growth officer with Trivium Packaging.