An estimated 36 percent of all plastic produced in a year is used for packaging resulting in an increased focus on the durability and lightweighting of the material. Packaging still creates high amounts of plastic waste each year – affirming the urgency for companies to build circular processes in packaging and invest in protecting our future.
The United States drives a significant portion of the world’s plastic waste, accounting for more than 40 million tons of this waste annually. More concerning is that little of that packaging gets recycled, with the recycling rate sitting at a mere five to six percent. Most of this waste ends up in landfills or dumpsites, or in too many instances, scattered across the landscape and in our water systems.
California recently signed a new law into effect which seeks to reduce plastic usage by 25 percent while simultaneously mandating 65 percent of all single-use plastic packaging be recycled – all within a ten-year time frame. This paves the way to a larger goal: that packaging used within the state be recyclable or compostable by 2032.
In the wake of this legislation growing in popularity across other states, and the continued build of plastic packaging in landfills and water systems, the time is now for corporations everywhere to get serious about plastic waste reduction and optimised recycling efforts, coming full circle with a circular economy for packaging.
Set a goal
Corporations should conduct an internal audit of their packaging, whether it is for B2B or B2C use, to determine the current situation. From there, it is important for brands to set holistic goals for plastic reduction and track progress towards those goals. Freudenberg Home and Cleaning Solutions (FHCS), for example, has set multiple targets related to packaging including design for recyclability, eliminating unnecessary packaging and an overall reduction in plastic packaging used.
Partnerships with organisations that work to accelerate the transition to a circular economy can help inspire brands and keep them on track. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for example, is committed to helping corporations eliminate all unnecessary packaging and strive towards a circular economy in all aspects of business.
Is that packaging necessary?
A good starting point is to scrutinise and reduce the amount of packaging required for a product and its transportation. Brands often make the mistake of assuming bigger is better when it comes to packaging, whether it is to protect the product in transport or simply stand out on a shelf. Consumers are paying attention because 55 percent of U.S. consumers are concerned about the environmental impact of product packaging.|
There is a minimalist movement in packaging design to greatly reduce excess plastic waste. Brands are more and more focused on using only the minimum of material for packaging, displays, and fillers. Through an analysis of materials used and external packaging design, FHCS, for example, has switched transportation shrink wrap to thinner, recycled material which enabled the brand to reduce its packaging thickness by as much as 75 percent. Overall, through innovative packaging design and focus on the elimination of unnecessary packaging, FHCS has been able to reduce packaging weight by 10 percent in just two years, already meeting its 2025 target.
Once unnecessary packaging has been eliminated, you can take a closer look at the material you are using. Is the plastic you are using for packaging recyclable? Are there recycled or compostable alternatives that can better serve this packaging? Will these alternatives have a larger carbon footprint than the plastic itself?
Today's biggest challenge facing the industry is a shortage of recycled raw materials. There are two driving factors for this shortage: lack of consumer education on how to recycle and limited economic value of recycled material at Material Recovery Facilities (MRF). MRFs are working on tight budgets to sort through large amounts of materials that are not recyclable. As a result, it is difficult for sustainable brands to secure recycled raw materials as alternatives for packaging.
Corporations can help facilitate recycling through the emphasised use of mono-materials, which consist of a single material and are therefore easily recycled. FHCS has targeted that 100% of its plastic packaging material be “designed for recyclability”, or mono-material, by 2025 and has nearly reached that goal already.
Reflect on internal processes
The same sustainable practices used in consumer product packaging should also be applied to a corporation’s internal shipping process. Just like reusable water bottles are a sustainable substitution for everyday use, it is also possible for corporations to create systems in which they can reuse their packaging and make their internal process more sustainable.
Where feasible, FHCS has invested in returnable transport boxes within and between manufacturing sites to drastically reduce single-use materials when transporting products internally. Such a process takes some education up front for employees to understand reuse guidelines and handling of dunnage but, in the long run, it reduces waste and spending on packaging materials.
Investing in our future
Corporations bear the responsibility of lessening their contributions to plastic waste. Action can be taken by directly transforming internal operations and/or supporting the work of alliances such as The Ellen MacArthur Foundation or The Alliance to End Plastic Waste.
Ultimately, brands need to embrace sustainability authentically and holistically, analyse their business operations and introduce sustainability practices from the top down. Sustainable operations are the way forward to a new packaging landscape, and when companies dedicate energy to this ideation – innovative progress will be made.
Tim Molek is Freudenberg's Global Senior Direct of Sustainability, overseeing the brand's sustainability initiatives, including a circular plastics economy. As a German technology leader since 1849 with 11 business groups in 40 international market segments, Freudenberg's brand has been rooted in sustainability for nearly two centuries producing materials made of recycled products and eco-friendly practices.