Notes on packaging and the circular economy

Design re-think will put resources at the centre of systems modelling

European Union Industry and Environment Council members enjoyed a circular economy ‘experience’ at a state-of-the-art Smurfit Kappa paper mill in the Netherlands

Japan has moved towards a highly efficient circular economy thanks primarily to its pioneering Law for the Promotion of Efficient Utilization of Resources, passed in 2000. The law, which treats materials as circular goods, covers the entire product life cycle. Manufacturers are required to run disassembly plants by law, with material recovery also legally mandated. Four European countries – Denmark, The Netherlands, Scotland and Sweden are also seemingly ahead of their peers. As Joanne Hunter reports, the UK has also become active in this area and amongst other measures, a Master of Science (MSc) degree course in the circular economy was recently launched by Cranfield University in the UK.

The recovery of cut grass, algae and leftovers and by products of industrial processing to use in the making of new things recognizes the value and increases the worth of what is naturally occurring and man made – sound reasons for thinking in circles. The term ‘circular economy’ has become fundamentally important in the lexicon of business and industry across the UK and Europe. Without meaning to alarm readers, to put into practice what it stands for – to embrace the notion of circularity for better management of finite and valuable resources, and also its complexity – has reached a level of urgency that cannot be ignored.

A renowned British institution, a seedbed for new and radical ideas in the arts and industry, is recommending a complete overhaul in how the stuff of everyday life is designed, built and disposed of, ultimately to make systems fit for purpose for a future of global resource scarcity. A four-year investigation by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, known as the RSA, in London, has concluded that to achieve sustainable levels of resource use in the long-term will be a massive undertaking.

“If we are serious about moving our global economy towards one that is built on resource efficiency, product-use optimization and environmental protection, there is a lot of re-designing to do,” says Sophie Thomas, director of Circular Economy at the RSA. By lifting the lid on how the systems of today operate sheds light on preferable pathways. “The Great Recovery project has demonstrated that by considering ‘value’ in a broader view – not as a price tag on a shop shelf, but around second or third life use, recoverable material streams and information and reverse logistics flows – can completely change the way we design.”

A new 46-page report, Designing for a Circular Economy: Lessons from The Great Recovery 2012 – 2016 (free to read online at takes in the views and recommendations of material experts, chemists, resource recoverers, policy makers, business developers, consultants, logistics managers and other actors in design teams. Thomas says, “The design of our products is far from being ‘circular-ready.’ Very few products in our global system have been originally designed to have recoverable value without material degradation occurring. Where we witnessed investment and innovation at end-of-life recovery processes, complexity, either in the multi-material composition or in the design, got in the way.”

The Great Recovery project was conceived in 2011 when Thomas joined a UK government mission to The Netherlands to study national strategies to design out landfill. A Dutch ban on landfill since 1995 had led to pioneering work in establishing circular economy models for its cities and manufacturing. Thomas says the Dutch were trailblazers in sorting, recovering and managing resource flows, “or waste flows as we were defining it in the UK at that point.”

Recently the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union took Industry and Environment Council members on a trip to see circularity in action at a state-of the-art paper mill in Roermond run by Smurfit Kappa, where 600,000 tonnes or one million bales of recycled paper get turned into new paper rolls every year. The circular economy experience was organized by the Royal Dutch papermaking association VNP and the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI). CEPI acting director general Jori Ringman says, “The paper industry champions many aspects of circularity from reusing water to industrial symbiosis, from including the whole value chain in advancing circularity, to working towards clean and safe cycles.”

Along the way, the Netherlands has become a ‘hotspot for alternative fibre sources,’ an area of expertise that began out of necessity, Ringman tells Packaging South Asia. “They have no forest available and are feeling the need for preparedness if paper for recycling would not be sufficiently available.” But environmental realities and industrial landscapes and mindsets have rearranged business priorities in favour of developing fibre alternatives. “Now their project has been propelled further for the simple reason that it makes so much sense to use these other sources that otherwise would be wasted, offering lots of opportunities in a ‘recycled biorefinery’ approach, partnering with many other sectors. Meanwhile, also the environmental concerns of very high emissions related to alternative fibres have been much resolved with new technologies.”

Naturally making savings
‘Nearly as natural as the eggs inside’ is the strap-line for food packaging specialist Huhtamaki’s new, moulded fibre egg carton – partly made from grass and marketed under the name GreeNest. Initially being produced on a limited scale at the company’s technical centre in The Netherlands, by the end of the year manufacturing will be possible on a bigger scale, Packaging South Asia was told at a packaging innovations show in Birmingham, UK, recently.

GreeNest egg boxes, which are naturally making environmental savings according to Huhtamaki, on display in UK Waitrose stores

The grass fibre is recovered from nature reserves, meaning that livestock is not deprived of feed and the grass has not been fertilized or treated. As such, these boxes make a good match for organic and free-range eggs says Huhtamaki, in Britain bearing Waitrose Duchy labels and in The Netherlands marketed by store brand Albert Heijn. Compared with standard boxes, by using cut grass Huhtamaki claims it is reducing resource pressure on forest production and cutting water use by half.

Elsewhere, in Italy a paper company is harvesting damaging algae from the environmentally very sensitive lagoon of Venice to use as a fibre source. This concept has been extended to protect other fragile marine areas says Favini, which has pioneered the use of other alternative fibres such as  tomato peels from nearby agri-food industries. Residuals from fruit and nut processing, citrus fruits, corn, kiwi, olive, almond, hazelnut, lavender, cherries and coffee, can also be used.

Sharp move
British company Plastique is offering various recyclable and compostable packaging material options, including bamboo and sugar cane, as naturally-based alternatives to plastics in clamshell inserts. Gillette is among the high profile commercial users of Fibrepak thermoformed packaging, for Fusion branded men’s razors. Sourced from sustainable virgin crops, the material can be colored and blended using food-safe pigment dyes to provide a variety of finishes. Cure-In-The-Mould technology is used to produce a high quality, well defined, smooth surfaced thin-walled fibre packaging. The Plastique Group based in Tunbridge Wells was acquired in January by ESCO Technologies headquartered in St. Louis, USA.

‘World first’ knowledge centre
A ‘unique’ Master of Science (MSc) degree course in the circular economy was recently launched in the UK by Cranfield University, to focus on restorative and regenerative business models. In March Packaging South Asia met the course convenor at a London event that showcased new ideas in resource management in manufacturing.

Dr Fiona Charnley says, “The world of business has shifted dramatically. The circular economy is widely regarded as the most dominant trend for environmentally responsible and innovative businesses. This unique postgraduate level course will help ambitious industrial professionals to accelerate this change through system-level understanding and application.”

Opportunities are growing for would-be pioneers to network among today’s knowledge leaders, to look at and question current use and abuse of limited resources, and scout for trailblazing technologies and inspiring examples of invention. If at first a mountain seems too high to climb, it surely is better to ascend slowly and sure-footed than get left so far behind you put at risk the very survival of a company or an entire sector.

Packaging South Asia is the cooperating media partner for drupa 2016 which is scheduled to be held from 31 May to 10 June at Dusseldorf, Germany.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

It is the right time to support our high-impact reporting and authoritative and technical information with some of the best correspondents in the industry. Readers can power Packaging South Asia’s balanced industry journalism and help sustain us by subscribing.

– Naresh Khanna

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