Green packaging – it’s not just a trend, it’s a must.
Guest commentary from PACKAGING Austria
It could all be so easy. Joining the two ends together is all that it takes for a straight line to become a circle. But it is precisely this link between end of life (grave) and start of life (cradle) that has been poorly managed in the past – or not managed at all. It is also a purely economic link because the technical possibilities have already been sufficiently proven. Converting waste into new products does not require us to defy any basic laws of physics or chemistry. But since we lack the business case for making this link, we would be violating the basic laws of economics. Where the business case has been simple or self-evident, certain resource cycles have been in operation for decades.
Why is it, then, that we are unable to configure the economics of one end in such a way that it becomes the beginning of the other? One key factor has undoubtedly been the fact that this link between grave and cradle was caught in a communications vacuum. Information only flows in one direction, friction losses filter out essential details, and the focus of highly industrialized production often leaves no scope for looking at the bigger picture. Even the mindset of the waste industry struggles with the concept of transforming waste into raw materials. At least we are now seeing some successes here and are beginning to listen and to understand that waste has the potential to be both a raw material and a commodity when we create the economic link by providing the business case.
So, how can we do that? I believe there are four key points that should be included in any circular economy strategy (as they are, for the sake of completeness, at Greiner Packaging).
We (packaging manufacturers) must have an understanding of what happens to our product at the end of its life. What condition is it in, how is it collected, where is it collected, what influences is it exposed to, does it still have a value and how does that relate to quality, what chemical/physical/biological/human processes is our product subjected to, and what influence do we have on that? In our case, what has happened to our flawless white cup – and why?
We (packaging manufacturers) must arrive at a better and deeper understanding of our products. We need to look beyond the filling company and the consumer to work out which products are suitable for a circular economy and which are not. And when they are not, in which cases is that down to the material and in which cases is it simply because of the product itself? By understanding what happens at the end of their lives, we can optimize our products with specific considerations in mind. In our case, we know what is going to happen to our flawless white cup and we can focus on that because we have a clear understanding of our product along the value chain.
We (packaging manufacturers) need a continuous stream of high-quality raw materials. Our ultraefficient production facilities have great difficulty in dealing with deviations in inputs. Stability comes at the cost of efficiency. That is why it is necessary for us to secure the relevant streams in order to bring them up to the required level of quality. Simply relying on what the recycler produces does not get us anywhere, because the recycler relies on receiving waste of a good standard and, in the end, the only way we are able to create a circular economy is to pass on responsibility. Since the product, and thus the material, are always dictated by the application, it is vital that we as packagers also focus our attention here. It is the raw material that allows us to produce our flawless white cup.
We (packaging manufacturers) need new business models that can transcend the economic barrier of the link between grave and cradle. New business opportunities are paving the way and making it easier (and, in many cases, possible) to close the gap. We have to ask ourselves questions about new partnerships, models involving returnable or leased products, pay-per-use/service, and formulate a system concept. Applying systems thinking along the value chain is a way of bringing stakeholders together, establishing customer-to-customer relationships, and creating a form of integrated economic participation.
It is in everyone’s interests to achieve a 360° circular economy. Everyone needs to participate, everyone needs to act, and everyone will be rewarded. We may not be able to change the basic laws of physics or chemistry, but we can certainly change the basic laws of economics.
Published in PACKAGING Austria