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5 Steps to Circular, Sustainable Packaging

Growing public concern about plastic waste is persuading many companies to re-examine their packaging strategies. Innovative businesses are starting to use circular economy approaches to develop better solutions and reduce costs.

Many of us are noticing the amount of plastic we discard each week - much of it not recyclable. The local authority may collect semi-rigid containers, bottles and pots, but not single-use plastics including bags, films, wrappers, cartons and trays. Many products have no information to help people understand what the material is, or how to recycle them.

Circular principles can provide a design ‘checklist’:


1. Rethink and redesign

Is all packaging necessary? Cosmetic brand Lush sells soaps in ‘naked’ packaging, and plastic-free supermarket aisles (and even whole supermarkets) are starting to pop up.

How could you redesign packaging and improve the volume density, minimising materials and footprints? Consider transit packaging too - could you get a better ‘fill’ on the pallet base and available height: improving utilisation of warehouse space, delivery vehicle and so on.

Designing for supply-chain efficiency helps reduce costs for the company and its retail customers, but few companies tap into the knowledge of their logistics teams.According to McKinsey, for two products of identical volume, more rectangular packaging can increase packing density by up to 40%. Move the product, not fresh air!

How easily can the user find appropriate recycling facilities? This may depend on how and where will the product be used, and where the packaging will be removed. People may consume a soft drink at work, at an event, in the street, or at home. Try to design for the majority of scenarios, not the example that’s the easiest option for the manufacturer! Be careful to avoid it becoming petrochemical-based plastic waste: ending up as litter and polluting water courses, or breaking down into microplastics and so ingested by living creatures (including humans).

2. Reduce the materials

Aim for fewer and simpler materials, to improve resource efficiency and aid recycling. Could you lightweight the design, using thinner walled bottles or cans to reduce materials, costs, energy and GHG emissions?

Could you print onto the pack instead of applying a label, reducing printing costs as well as improving recyclability?

If it’s likely to go into ‘mainstream’ recycling services, then ensure the design simplifies recycling. Use materials that are recyclable and recycled: avoid multiple materials, laminates and dark colours which are difficult to sort, separate and recycle.

3. Recyclability

Can you make it easier to recycle, perhaps by using alternatives to plastics, including glass, metals, cardboard and paper? Otherwise, aim to use renewable, bio-based materials, so at the end of life, waste becomes food for nature: compost. Bio-based materials include paper/card, cellulose, or PLA (polylactic acid) from corn starch or sugar beet.

Ecovative use mycelium to convert agricultural waste into a strong, lightweight protective pack. Certifications for ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ indicate that the materials will break down and won’t prevent decomposition of surrounding organic waste: they don’t guarantee use of bio-based materials.

4. Recover for reuse

Could you set up systems to recover primary, secondary and transit packaging for your own reuse, or as part of a sector collaboration? There are systems for beer kegs and returnable bottles, and now there is a solution for e-commerce delivery packaging, with RePack.

5. Provide information

Encourage recycling and recovery, by providing clear information about the packaging materials, and the options for end-of-use recovery or recycling.

Is your packaging future-fit? Is it making a positive contribution to society and nature, and meeting your customer’s needs: in delivery, in use and at end of use? Can you rethink, reduce or recover it for reuse? If not, how best can you design it for zero waste, and make sure it becomes a feedstock for new packaging, or high-quality compost? Circular economy and ‘zero waste’ approaches can help you improve the sustainability, the user experience, and save money.

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