Closing the Circular Economy

The circular economy is the key to meeting challenging sustainability goals. Its success would mean that energy, resources and nutrients continue to bring value and are not wasted by being dumped, burned, or disposed of in other means.  In the packaging world, there are a number of ways to close the circular economy.  Packaging can be recycled; turned back into a basic material so it can be reformed into new packaging.

Or it can be composted or degraded to return nutrients to the earth. These options have a fundamental issue; the ownership of packaging is transferred.  When a brand-owner sells a product it is also selling the packaging, and the motivation of the new owner may be misaligned to motivation of organizations in the circular economy, meaning the used packaging doesn’t make it to the recycling stream or composting site. The consumer also may not have the means to place the packaging back into the cycle if recycling or composting sites are not available in their region.

A third option is available that retains ownership of packaging with the brand-owner. Retaining that ownership ensures that there is a responsibility for building the correct infrastructure to allow the circular economy to be closed. That option is to reuse the packaging for the same purpose; send it back so it can be refilled with the product. 

Terracycle’s Loop program is an example of reusing packaging to close the circular economy. In that program the ownership of the packaging is retained with the brand-owners. Consumers are simply renting, or even borrowing the packaging. Under these circumstances brand-owners are much more prepared to invest in the resources required to make the program successful.

The return of the packaging is essential for success. While a commitment to sustainability by brand-owners is commendable, it is also important that their efforts are not too costly to the organization.  Therefore, the additional cost of packaging that is durable enough to withstand multiple journeys and sanitizations must be recouped. It is estimated that durable reusable packaging must be used 50 times to be financially viable. 

So how can return rates for reusable packaging be improved? This is where connected packaging comes in.  Connected packaging can be used in two fundamental areas, incentive and monitoring, but the possibilities within each area are limitless. For example, for incentives to return, the brand-owner might interact with the user through apps that are activated from embedded packaging technology to help them reorder or offer prizes to return the packaging. Connected packaging can also be used to monitor the use and life of the packaging. 

If environmental conditions are more extreme than anticipated, causing performance issues, the packaging will be able to communicate that. The packaging will be able to communicate how many cycles it has been through. Packaging may even provide real time data on conditions that may be impacting performance so that brand-owners can try to rectify the conditions before deterioration occurs.

Reusable packaging is a real solution. The circular economy can be truly closed.  But to make it work, connected packaging is essential. That is why at Adept we are predicting a hand in hand rise in the development of durable packaging and rise of connected packaging. Are you ready for it? 

Our Loop-Certified Sustainability experts would love to meet with you if you’re attending SPC Engage on June 17, in Minneapolis.

Click here to set up a meeting for SPC Engage

If you’re not attending, we’d still love to talk to you about how increase packaging sustainability and develop robust returnable, connected packaging.

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