At the recent COP26 climate talks, countries and companies largely focused on tackling climate change by decarbonizing the energy sector. Such tactics include commitments to curb the finance of fossil fuel projects, address the challenge of methane emissions, and reduce the carbon intensity of industries like aluminum and steel.
Such agreements, while critical, are only part of the climate action equation, as research suggests shifting to renewable energy will eliminate just over half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. “Meeting climate targets will also require tackling the remaining 45 percent of emissions associated with making products,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation concluded in a 2019 report. “A circular economy offers a systemic and cost-effective approach to tackling this challenge.”
It’s clear the circular economy will never become reality without more innovations and efficiency in packaging. After all, packaging touches just about everything that passes through global supply chains. This is especially true in wealthier countries, or what the global NGO Circle Economy calls “shift countries.” Such nations are home to a minority of the world’s population but generate more than 40 percent of global emissions and drive about a third of global resource extraction. They also produce an astounding 11.6 billion metric tons of waste annually.
In its 2021 Circularity Gap Report, Circle Economy found that only 8.6 percent of the world’s economy is actually circular — and the evidence suggests that ratio is declining, not increasing.
While those statistics are daunting, slashing global waste is still possible. “Countries can design for the future, eliminating excess resource use in packaging and product design, and prioritize the use of regenerative resources, for example by using biodegradable materials for packaging or certain product components,” the NGO concluded.
One company that is determined to drive innovation within the circular economy is Siegwerk, a global supplier of printing inks for packaging applications. Partnering with a bevy of organizations focused on recycling and circularity solutions, Siegwerk has committed to having 75 percent of all its sales enable circular packaging by enabling less, reusable, recyclable and renewable packaging.
The numbers alone make a strong case for why all companies should eschew virgin materials for packaging and take the necessary steps to use recycled content. “Plastic packaging that is made of recycled content has a 50 percent lower carbon footprint compared to one made of virgin material,” Alina Marm, Siegwerk’s head of global sustainability and circular economy, said during the recent Henkel Sustainability Days online forum. “If you actually used a change model in how we use packaging and switch from single-use to reuse models, we see a benefit of 50 to 80 percent reduction in CO2, depending on what packaging substrate [is used].”
Plastic is lightweight, low in cost, and can be shaped to encase and protect just about any product on the market. Thanks to these attributes, plastic has become more popular as a packaging material in the last half century. But the proliferation of single-use plastic has entrenched a linear “make-take-dispose” model that consumes vast amounts of resources and leaves a harmful scar on the environment, biodiversity and increasingly society — likely above the overall value plastic offers in a linear system. Circular economic models, on the other hand, respect the natural boundaries of the planet while minimizing waste and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
More global organizations have recognized this. “Net zero cannot be achieved by decarbonizing the energy sector alone,” the World Economic Forum (WEF) concluded in a March 2021 report. In a nod to the role that packaging can have in such a transformation, WEF offered this reminder: “Circularity is needed to tackle climate goals within the next decade.”
While greater focus on the circular economy is welcome, Marm of Siegwerk reiterates that the road ahead is a long one. “While change is rapid in respect to climate change, circular packaging is not addressing it all yet,” she said. “We have some climate action gaps. If you look at the global plastics emissions among the lifecycle of plastic, you see that only 9 percent result from the actual managed end-of-life scenarios, the remaining emissions caused by sourcing and converting.” That shows us that optimizing only for end-of-life is not sufficient — it must be paired with feeding that recycled material back into the system and using less overall.
The impact that the manufacture of packaging materials such as plastic has on the global environment will only surge in the coming decades if circularity — thought holistically — does not become the norm. According to the World Resources Institute: “As the population and consumerism increases, so does the demand for materials. Emissions are likely to grow fast without changes to current production and consumption. For steel, cement, aluminum and plastics, emissions are predicted to rise by a factor of two to four by 2050.” For plastic alone, this means that 10 percent of the 1.5 degrees carbon budget will be needed.
Marm is among the circularity thought leaders who say the role of global plastics manufacturing has been overlooked. “We’re to some extent neglecting the utter drivers for greenhouse gas emissions, whether it be extraction, raw material production or the conversion of packaging and hence limiting the potential circular packaging has,” she explained.
A circular economy model can actually create more opportunities for companies that are part of the global plastics value chain: “27 percent of all plastic packaging today is technically recyclable, not recycled, [but] technically recyclable. So we still have a way to go, giving us ample economic opportunity,” Marm said.
The case for circularity is not solely an environmental or economic one. “Our economic model really builds on an exploitive capitalist model,” Marm explained. “I know these are harsh words, but think about one of the definitions of capitalism: It is the extraction of the surplus of value. We’re extracting from natural resources, but also very much from the human beings in our global community.”
While wealthier countries have successfully exported the make-take-dispose model globally, few developing nations have the waste management infrastructure necessary to absorb the high volumes of single-use waste now being produced within their borders. Many rely on self-employed refuse collectors to keep streets and waterways clean, but these individuals tend to be poorly paid and face significant health risks at work. “The informal sector, which covers a vast amount of our waste management, can actually source all the material that we need in the recycling space,” Marm said. “We’d better give them a better stake at the table.”
Further, many rich countries export their waste, further overburdening the waste management systems in poorer countries and forcing them to burn and dump — rather than recover — most of the waste they import.
Circle Economy’s 2021 Gap Report also emphasizes the importance the informal sector has in addressing these challenges. “Teaming up to create joint value and aligning the role of the decentralized labor sector with waste management processes will be necessary to reduce footprints and material use from both construction and demolition waste…and solid municipal waste,” the NGO concluded. “By introducing waste management infrastructure, halting waste-imports from shift countries and formalizing waste pickers — allowing them to work in safer conditions in processing facilities — these issues may be addressed.”
For Marm, the social and environmental cases are inextricably linked — and both make a compelling argument for a global rethink of waste. “If you just think about the sheer amount of waste that we’re producing in Europe and the U.S., and shipping off to other countries, well aware that they do not have the infrastructure, that they are going to carry the environmental, social and economic burden of our consumerism, seeing all this, I think it becomes evident why I’m pushing us to challenge the underlying economic model,” she said.
This article series is sponsored by Siegwerk Druckfarben and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image credit: ink drop/Adobe Stock
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.