Why packaging producers must face the circular economy challenge head-on

Pictured: Mainetti's plastic-free Paperform Hanger range

Sustainability is a top concern as we approach several tipping points that will see the irreversible devastation of our planet, worsening the climate crisis. Many companies have therefore begun to reshape their business models to adopt more sustainable practices.

The packaging sector is one such industry undergoing a sustainable transformation, with recent efforts to prioritise the circular economy. While these changes are important, not enough is being done to rectify an industry historically dependent on single-use materials.

In line with the EU’s objectives for the 27 Member States to prepare 65% of packaging waste for reuse and recycling by 2025, several states are at risk of missing this target.

The reality is that scaling circularity is no small feat.

Complex materials, complex recycling

The complexities around material type are a significant challenge that is impeding the success of the circular economy, particularly when considering plastic packaging.

As there are numerous plastic types used across the packaging industry, a single product is often made of multiple different types. This creates problems as each plastic type requires a unique recycling process, meaning that for the consumer to properly recycle the product, they must separate each material to dispose of appropriately. As this process is time-consuming and complicated – with 80% of consumers still confused as to what is and isn’t recyclable – many report not bothering to recycle at all.

One way to rectify this problem is to increase the manufacturing of mono-material packaging. Making products from a single material simplifies the recycling process by eliminating the need for sorting and separating different material types. This creates higher recycling rates compared to multi-material packaging, thereby promoting a more efficient and sustainable recycling system that reduces waste and upholds the circular economy.

Century Box Mainetti introduced its first single-material luxury box, The Loop, in 2023. Made entirely from cardboard with a paper coating that is 100% recyclable, The Loop provides a more sustainable packaging solution that is easily fed back into the supply chain at the end of its life.

With more products like these, the packaging industry will be able to accelerate the global supply chain toward the circular economy. Plastic is not always the answer, given that only 9% of the world’s plastic waste is properly recycled.

Recycling infrastructure and policy

To improve recycling rates, governments must introduce and implement robust recycling infrastructure to properly treat and recycle packaging products, keeping materials in a closed loop supply chain. While some countries are leading in this arena, others are lagging behind.

A 2023 meta-analysis by Roland Berger and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste found that 60% of the 192 countries included had underdeveloped or incipient waste systems where less than 8% of the plastic waste produced was recycled. The analysis found that while the UK has an unregulated but functional infrastructure, the US is still developing with a need for government intervention to create a standardised approach.

Leading the pack is the Netherlands, operating as a developed and high-performing system with the highest recycling rate for packaging in the EU at 82%. Operating under Nedvang, a Packaging Recovery Organisation (PRO), the Netherlands is on track to exceed the EU’s 2030 recycling targets. Last year, the National Circular Economy Program (NPCE) was introduced and set specific goals to achieve by 2030. For example, the program aims to make materials in value chains 100% traceable and hopes for at least 25% of target businesses to have implemented circular innovations in their operations.

Through government-supported programs such as Nedvang and the NCPE, the Netherlands is leading by example at what countries must do to achieve a circular economy.

The UK is attempting to follow suit, with an EPR regime set to take effect by October 2025. Similarly, in 2023, eleven US states introduced packaging EPR Bills, such as Colorado which will require producers of consumer packaging to join the Circular Action Alliance in 2026.

The reality is that without the support of a nationwide recycling infrastructure, the circular efforts of businesses, consumers, and NGOs alike will simply not be capable of achieving widespread circular success. If the UK and US are to achieve a truly circular economy, more must be done.

Industry reliance on single-use packaging

Due to a lack of government intervention and investment in sustainable technologies, non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle materials still dominate consumer packaging. For example, ziplock food bags, bubble wrap, plastic wrap, and blister packaging, among many others, are all typically non-recyclable.

The UK is attempting to reduce its reliance on single-use packaging, exemplified by the recent ban of certain single-use plastic items as well as the revised Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) which includes mandatory reuse targets for all materials.

However, there has been significant pushback from the packaging industry on these efforts. For example, following the European Commission’s proposal to ban all single-use packaging, unprecedented levels of industry lobbying took place to negotiate the proposal. As a result, the European Parliament has begun an investigation to explore the accusation that some of the lobbyists involved may have breached security rules.

Finland and Italy were particularly vocal in their pushback against tougher restrictions on single-use packaging and reuse targets – unsurprisingly so, as Italy is Europe’s second biggest producer of paper and board while Finland is the second biggest producer of pulp. With the EU’s new watered-down regulation, these countries can continue to produce single-use paper and cardboard packaging as the rules shift to a focus plastic instead.

This is detrimental to the environment as paper-based packaging remains the biggest source of packaging waste in the EU (41.1%). Amassing 32.7 million tonnes in 2020, paper-based waste exceeds that of the two next largest materials combined – plastic (19.4%) and glass (19.1%).

More recently, the fourth session of negotiations on the UN’s global plastics treaty took place in April. While discussions have been praised for the shift from vague objectives to treaty language, an analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law found that the number of fossil fuel and petrochemical industry lobbyists had increased by 37% from the last session in November 2023. This meant that lobbyists outnumbered national delegations and scientists at the session.

It is therefore clear that not only do governments need to take responsibility, but the industry does as well.

The future of the circular economy

Mainetti has been working to combat these challenges, having partnered with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) in 2021. With more than 40 years of circular economy experience behind them, Mainetti’s team has developed a range of innovative sustainable packaging products, including M-Film™, our line of flexible packaging films that make for the perfect alternative to virgin plastic.

Further, Mainetti launched their pioneering closed-loop polythene recycling process, Polyloop, in 2021 – the world’s first global initiative that allows retailers to source clear LDPE film containing between 30 and 100 percent recycled material. Through Polyloop, Mainetti hopes to increase the efficiency of the retail supply chain and keep materials in a closed loop to be used time and time again.

Although efforts are being made to achieve a circular economy, more must be done if we are to leave behind the linear supply chain that currently defines the packaging sector.

To put an end to this destructive system that is only exacerbating the climate crisis, we can all play a part.

Businesses must innovate sustainable solutions that will turn the packaging industry on its head, and consumers must be mindful of their purchases and recycling practices. Governments need to create sufficient infrastructures to facilitate the proper collection and recycling of materials, and when green legislation is introduced, the industry must rally behind it rather than act as a further obstacle to be overcome.

Mike Jones is the global head of innovation at Mainetti.

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