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Thomas Schueneman headshot

Packaging the Circular Economy: A Holistic Approach to Stuff



Does the circular economy start where it ends or end where it starts? It's the classic chicken-or-egg conundrum.

From the perspective of the consumer-driven linear model to which we are accustomed, the idea of a circular economy may be a bit obtuse, like our opening riddle. Or so it may seem.

What does the circular economy really mean, anyway? After all, we recycle. Isn’t that circular enough?

Linear economic models have clearly-defined beginnings and endings. They are built on a straight line from resource extraction to waste, with an assumption of limitless growth, or at least a lack of concern for any possible limits. And they leave many true costs unaccounted for as “externalities.”

Writing in the Ricardo Energy and Environment blog, Simon Gandy speaks of the common, albeit misplaced, narrative associated with the circular economy:

“The shortest (and most desirable) circular route is to reuse the material, after which we have increasingly large loops associated with recycling and recovery, and often a spur to the dead-end that is disposal.


"Reuse – recycle – recover – dispose … it's our old friend, the (linear yet usually triangular) waste hierarchy! (…interestingly, albeit, almost always without the ’reduce’ option at the top)."

Gandy suggests that typical CET (circular economy thinking) "may focus more on the ‘reuse/recycle’ end of the waste hierarchy, but that is exactly where the hierarchy wishes us to focus our efforts anyway." Recycling is a worthy objective. But too much priority given to this end-of-life aspect of managing material flow, without considering upstream flows, is a relic of linear-systems thinking. Even if it is recycled.


A more robust, holistic mindset for a circular economy goes higher up the waste hierarchy. It presents a wider focus on material properties and flow, as well as externalities and social impact. The chicken and the egg.

From cradle to cradle, go with the flow

The San Francisco-based nonprofit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute builds on the work of William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart. McDonough published "The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability" in 1992, and 10 years later he published "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things" with Braungart. Based on their foundational work, the Institute administers the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Program.


The standard guides product design and manufacture through five quality categories covering full lifecycle impact:

  • Material health
  • Material reuse
  • Renewable energy and carbon management
  • Water stewardship
  • Social fairness

There are five levels of Cradle to Cradle certification, basic through platinum. This framework of quality categories and certification levels allows companies to actively monitor and improve their materials and processes.


Maintained and governed by an 11-member independent Standards Certification Board, the framework is grounded in guiding principles and objectives. Standards evolve through multi-stakeholder input and ongoing research, with Version 4 anticipated for release in 2017. Product evaluation is carried out by a network of accredited assessment bodies throughout North America, Europe, and South America.

Life as a package

Of all the material that makes the products we buy, one of the most ubiquitous and in need of circular economy thinking is the packaging used for all of our stuff. As such, product packaging offers an opportunity to escape our linear-thinking rut and reduce our daily flow of throughput.


It seems so incidental to the matter at hand; there’s a familiar tinge of annoyance, even guilt, digging through the layers of packaging for the products we buy. Under the thrall of buying something fresh, new and useful, packaging is part of the experience. And it's one that is quickly disposed of and forgotten. A quick high.

Throwing all, or at least most, of that packaging into the recycling bin feels like vindication enough. The problem is, as we've noted, we're still stuck in our linear thinking.

Applying the Cradle to Cradle methodology to product packaging is "particularly important," Lewis Perkins told TriplePundit in a recent interview. President of the Institute, Perkins has long been an advocate for sustainability.

"Packaging is an oft-overlooked aspect of mass consumption," Perkins told 3p. "And as such, the opportunity to innovate and scale new materials and new packaging products designed for the circular economy is tremendous."

A "significant proportion" of what goes into landfills around the world is packaging material, much of which consists of plastic, paper, and glass materials -- all of which are recyclable, Perkins said.

"While these items can be recycled, recycling is only part of the solution," he explained. "In order to further reduce the environmental impacts of packaging, including reducing the fast use of resources and raw materials involved in packaging production, companies are recognizing that they need to re-envision the way they design and make packaging from materials to end of life."

Nature's packaging

Circular economic principles align with triple-bottom-line accounting. Cradle-to-cradle methodology is a natural progression as companies adopt the triple bottom line.


Notable examples in the Cradle to Cradle registry include Ecovative, a biomaterials company producing mushroom materials. Developed in partnership with Sealed Air Corp., Ecovative's patent-protected process uses mushroom technology to convert agricultural waste, seed husks, corn stalks, and other crop byproducts into a compostable material. When mixed with mycelium (mushroom "roots"), the result is an alternative to expanded plastic foams, fiberboard and other materials.

Additionally Sealed Air, one of America's largest packaging companies, offers customers a wide range of "right size" food packaging products designed to minimize food waste, reduce plastic use and keep food fresh longer. The company brings to bear more than 50 years of experience developing commercial packaging solutions focused on circular economic principles. 

Organizations like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition further engage industry to adopt better material flows and define sustainable packaging solutions.


These few examples highlight the steady and determined progress made for packaging that meets cradle-to-cradle standards. But as with all "alternative" solutions, challenges remain.


Perkins cited issues of scale, policy and procedure. "Scaling up materials and products to standards does require time and investment," he conceded.

"In order to successfully replace traditional packaging en masse with packaging that meets cradle-to-cradle standards, companies must ensure the new materials and products perform to the same or higher standards for their intended functional applications – whether that’s impact protection, temperature regulation, materials handling, food and beverage containment, household goods, cosmetics, or consumer-facing packaging."

Materials recovery is another challenge, Perkins explained.

It's all about "closing the loop on scaling systems and processes for recovering packaging after it has been used so that those materials can remain in a perpetual, cradle-to-cradle cycle of use and reuse," he told 3p.

Waste not, want not

So, where does that leave us? For the most part, in a linear economy. But, just as with fossil fuels, the momentum for change continues to build as more companies realize the eonomic, environmental and social benefits of circulur economic thinking.


We live on a planet with finite resources sought after by more people. A linear mindset, no matter how firmly ingrained, will soon no longer be viable.

"As global material consumption continues to increase, we face a looming shortage of raw materials available for the manufacture of all kinds of products,” Perkins insisted.

"In order to keep pace with escalating consumer demand worldwide, we need to develop new ways of designing and making products with materials that can remain in perpetual cycles of use and reuse," Perkins said. "This new circular economy will help decrease our collective dependence upon virgin raw materials and, ideally, eliminate the concept of waste entirely from our systems of production and consumption."

Waste not, want not; a timeless phrase never more apropos than it is today.


Image credits: Ruben Alexander, courtesy Flickr; Tom Schueneman

Thomas Schueneman headshot

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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