Listen Up! Recycling Can’t Support a Circular Economy Alone

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By Elisabeth Comere

The linear take-make-dispose model is no longer viable in the face of rapid population growth, a burgeoning global middle class and the skyrocketing consumption that will inevitably follow. Our resource base is dwindling while greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. It’s now safe to say that if we continue with business as usual, companies will face an unpleasant future of price volatility, inflation of key commodities and an overall decline, and in some cases, depletion of critical material inputs. This is why businesses are turning to the circular economy to successfully tackle these challenges.

Considerable attention is being paid to capturing resources at the post-consumer stage of the product lifecycle. But even with advanced systems and technology, how practical and realistic is it to truly create a circle that constantly re-uses? How do we address the fact that there will always be a need for at least some virgin material inputs? How do we address the limitations of reusing and recycling? What role can renewable materials and responsible sourcing of raw materials play in addressing these challenges and what role can it play in a circular economy?

Even if the recycling system was perfect, the fact still remains that 100 percent of feedstock cannot come from recycled content alone and we will always rely on a portion of virgin input materials. This is why renewable materials and sustainable sourcing are critical to the circular economy. Certainly value-innovation should ensure that product/packaging is still designed with recyclability in mind because the end-of-life cannot be compromised. The strength of the circular economy model lies in this restorative lifecycle approach and adding renewability to recyclability will create a new leading edge in the evolution of products/packaging.

We should all strive to keep resources in use for as long as possible and regenerate materials and products at the end of their lifecycle, but it is known that we can only recycle something for so long before it begins to disintegrate. Therefore, establishing a genuine circular economy includes capturing the value of resources on the front-end of the lifecycle as well. This can be achieved through renewable materials and sustainable sourcing. What I mean by “renewable materials” is natural resources that can be replenished overtime such as paperboard made from trees or bio-based plastics derived from plants like trees or sugar cane. While some of these are not perfect solutions, they are a step in the right direction.

There are true business and environmental benefits to increasing the use of renewable materials:

  • Securing availability and access to raw materials
  • Predictable supply of raw materials
  • Resilient supply chain to better manage costs
  • Reduce climate impacts, preserve biodiversity and natural habitats; keeping the climate in balance

It’s important to acknowledge that, as with any other product, costs are driven by supply and demand. So as renewable bio-based technology becomes more mainstream through supply chain integration, we can expect cost parity with traditional materials. But I must point out: As businesses shift to a circular economy, we must consider changing our traditional way of measuring return on investment. New technologies should be evaluated on ability to preserve natural habitats, grow natural capital and reduce future risk.

Finally, consumers’ interest and demand are driving us to more sustainable practices and products. Demographic trends in consumer behaviors are changing as they become more aware and educated about climate change risks. We at Tetra Pak completed a survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers who make purchasing decisions about groceries, and 86 percent of respondents said if they knew using packaging made with renewable materials contributed to reduced carbon emissions and helped slow climate change, it would impact their choice of product. What this tells us is that we have the opportunity to educate and promote the benefits of renewability to consumers and stress how it can play a significant role in bending the curve towards progress in our efforts to secure sustainable material supplies.

What’s next?

As we transition to a successful circular economy, companies will be looking for raw material alternatives in order to find ways to secure availability and access to materials and remain competitive. During this time of change, we may see a policy and regulatory environment that either hinders — or helps — these practices and technologies emerge.

Image credit: Pixabay

Elisabeth Comere is the Director of Environment & Government Affairs at Tetra Pak. Working out of the United States since 2010, Elisabeth is responsible for advancing Tetra Pak’s commitment to sustainability in both the U.S. and Canada and oversees numerous industry and customer packaging sustainability initiatives.

Elisabeth joined Tetra Pak in 2006 as Environment Manager for Europe, where she helped define and drive Tetra Pak’s environmental and carton recycling strategies.

Prior to joining Tetra Pak, Elisabeth served as a political adviser to a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and headed the Environment Department of the Food & Drink industry group in Europe.

Elisabeth was educated in France, the United Kingdom and Belgium. She graduated as a lawyer from Law School of Bordeaux University (France) and earned an Environmental Sciences Master from Brussels University (Belgium).

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