Rounding off on… the circular economy and packaging

A circular economy philosophy has been around for a number of years, but advocates in Brussels have now successfully brought a revamped Circular Economy Policy Package to the top of Europe’s agenda. Announced in December 2015, the new Package looks to reshape regulation and presents a real opportunity for Europe to make itself more resource efficient.

This is the opposite of today’s traditional linear economy that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (a non-profit organization that supports the advancement and adoption of a circular economy) aptly summarizes as “take, make, and dispose”. Also described as a “continuous positive development cycle”1, a circular economy looks to get the most out of any product by eliminating waste and prolonging its life span–ensuring the product is used for as long as possible and is regenerated at the end of each life to the fullest extent possible.

In regions such as Europe, with limited natural resources, the case for maximizing resource efficiency is a strong business, economic and environmental one. This is especially relevant when there are growing consumer concerns for the environment. The implementation of a more circular economy can help address this.

More specifically, the relaunched Circular Economy Package by the European Commission seeks to drive greater efforts in the recycling and recovery of waste, including that from packaging. Where previous proposals for packaging have included a 70 percent reuse and recycling target of municipal waste by 2030, the new Package (launched in December 2015) requests 60 percent by 2025, together with other material-specific targets.

More importantly, however, is that the new Package moves beyond just recycling targets to promote resource efficiency throughout the value chain, most notably within design, production and consumption, and recognizes the important role of the consumer in the implementation of these changes. It also encourages the development of a deeper and broader secondary raw materials market while limiting the use of certain hazardous substances in the production of new materials.

The new policy package looks at materials like plastics, food waste, critical raw materials (those of high economic importance and with vulnerability to supply disruption), construction and demolition as well as biomass and bio-based products closely. Plastics have come under particular scrutiny partly because they are viewed as the principle contributor to marine litter. Therefore, the European Commission has set out to improve collection and certification training for collectors and sorters in order to divert plastic away from incineration and landfill towards more regeneration of products at its end-of-life. More focus on plastics is expected as the European Commission plans to develop a strategy on plastics dedicated to the entire lifecycle.

The good news is that the plastic packaging industry has already been moving in this direction for many years. Optimized resource use, minimized product waste and protected products all along value chains are but a few of the actions that have been taken to extend the life of a product.

The industry has so far warned that any further recycling targets for packaging under this new Package must take into account the multitude of packaged products available as well as the complexity and particularities of their individual value chains.

As the plastic packaging market continues to grow, any company operating within the European market will need to understand these new measures as they could have an impact on growth and innovation in the packaging value chain. The Package will not only impact the packaging industry, but hold the manufacturing sector accountable as European players push to include elements like new binding resource efficiency indicators and/or product passports.

It is clear the circular economy as a policy objective is here to stay thanks to the broad commitment from the European Commission to deliver on its new chief sustainability project, generating both economic and environmental gain. What is unclear is the pace of Europe’s transition that will depend entirely on the level of ambition expressed by European decision-makers and the ability to get reluctant Member States on board.

Footnotes

1“Circular Economy Overview”, Ellen Macarthur Foundation, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/overview/concept