Packaging in the Circular Economy: Closed Loops – not Loopholes


In this blog, Roger Wright of Biffa responds to the question about how the Circular Economy for packaging looks in a post-Covid world.

“We see a world of abundance, not limits. In the midst of a great deal of talk about reducing the human ecological footprint, we offer a different vision”
– William McDonough, from ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’.

As designers and technologists embark upon ‘new normal’ or ‘never the same again’ to unpick the ubiquitous subject of sustainability, they’ll be addressing the question – What does a Circular Economy actually look like for packaging in a post-COVID world? And if it’s the question you were too afraid to ask (or answer), you’re not alone. By engaging in conversation with waste management operators, like Biffa, we can answer that question.

Beginning To See The Light

When my packaging career began back in the ’90s, the role of a good structural designer was essentially an exercise in optimisation. Wedded to the sustainability concept of the 3R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle as a strong foundation from which to work, the best packs were engineered to be the thinnest, the lightest and the cheapest they could be or so damn good you didn’t even consider them to be packaging at all, like that gorgeous iPhone box you can’t bear to throw away. Reduce was best, Reuse was bold and Recycle was a bonus.

Then a brand new notion of great design came forward and changed everything. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we Make Things, blew the lid off ‘less is more’. The idea within; that a leaner design philosophy for packaging was, at best, only less bad shocked everyone into a new reality.

Enter a sailor called Ellen back from her life-changing round the world journey. This remarkable young woman from landlocked Derbyshire set the record for the fastest solo nonstop voyage at her first attempt in 2005. On this adventure, with only a finite set of resources at her disposal she was inspired to start an environmental organisation bearing her name. From 2010 she’s been successfully changing the old-fashioned ideas of consumption that take, make and dispose of materials into one which keeps valuable resources in circulation forever. With a meeting of minds in a perfect storm, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its endorsement of a Circular Economy was born.

But what did this mean for packaging?

To me, it’s simply that a circular economy for packaging decouples growth from using finite resources whilst keeping everything, in an uninterrupted technical or natural loop of material.

And that is the theory, do that and you will be home and dry! However, the physical manifestation of this will need to be a suite of sustainable solutions that work in the real world – and that’s when things get complicated.

3 Is The Magic Number

Packaging is emblematic of how a business operates and an eerily accurate proxy for the care taken with all waste in general. It should be innovatively smarter, recyclable and more sustainable within a circular system that blazes a trail for all to follow in its wake. Unique to packaging, this includes the inconvenient truth that if entering the environment (as some materials inevitably will) they should also be compatible with nature and non-polluting; great examples of this being bio-transformation innovations for plastics that degrade safely without human intervention and water-soluble film and plastic coatings that wash away without leaving any toxins behind.

Packaging is emblematiс of how a business operates

One then must also consider that the infrastructure in regions where the packaging potentially ends up is a key consideration. And if global brands can’t align their packaging formats to the local or national differences in waste management they might want to pick an innovative alternative and common denominator that would combat plastic waste, health concerns and the impacts on a developing countries marine environment.

What logically follows therefore is you can’t simply look at a packaging solution in isolation ever again and just suggest another format or material. One must look at the entire end-to-end value chain and ask some fundamental questions:

Question #1: Is there a better way to provide this product to our customers, so we can remove the packaging altogether? eg. the reinvention of bottled fizzy water, the SodaStream way.

Question #2: If we can’t remove the packaging, can we subtlety subvert the supply chain and redesign the product for full recyclability? eg. Splosh refillable home detergents and cleaning products in compact and clever formats.

Question #3: And if we can’t do either of the above, can we at least ‘nudge’ the customer into better behaviours? eg. M&S charging a small fee for carrier bags a long time before it was mandated into law.

Let’s Go Round Again

If you’ve started to ask these uncomfortable questions and the meaning of sustainability is becoming clearer, anyone serious about their impact on the earth must now also select solutions through the lens of carbon use. And my advice for any Biffa business customers would be…
1.       Use the most sustainable source of key raw materials available, regardless of substrate; for example, FSC/PEFC paper fibres, non-oil-based polymer alternatives and the ASI standard for responsible Aluminium stewardship.

2.       Insist on an energy-efficient and low carbon operation for the conversion of these materials.

3.       Promote best practice of all available recycling programmes with office and factory waste.

4.       Remove as many single-use packaging items as possible (including but not exclusive to plastics) whilst ensuring what’s leftover is recyclable and actually recycled. Check with your waste operator to understand what materials can be and are recycled.

5.       Finally, and most importantly, implement at least one reuse concept for a product or service already in production that will emanate the biggest impact.

Recycling in the broadest sense is not the only index of a circular success story. The ways in which we reduce and recover materials in open-loop systems or via refuse-derived fuel, only exist to support this transition from a linear to a circular way of working. It’s not the end game, but a strategic steppingstone to a successful circular model that’s restorative and regenerative by design, just like nature.

The result is that 4 out of every 5 plastic milk bottles now contain our material.

Not all recycling systems however are created equal. At Biffa Polymers in the North East, we facilitate bottle to bottle recycling in a closed-loop system for the supermarkets, thanks to the fantastic collaborative hard work of the Dairies to standardise Milk bottle design despite the competing interests of marketers. The result of that is 4 out of every 5 plastic milk bottles now contain our material. We’re also part of a journey to turn PET plastic beverage bottles back into new ones just down the road in Seaham. In Derby, we help turn nearly 400 million aluminium cans back into the same thing a potentially infinite number of times. And across all regions, we also redeploy the natural gases in decaying food waste whilst creating fertiliser from what’s left behind.

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Unfortunately, the uninitiated out there are greenwashing their way into trouble and undermining the true meaning of this circular concept. We see brands all too often let themselves and their customers down by looking for loopholes in the craft of eco-design or falling for the notion that a simple switch of substrate is the answer to all their prayers. Biffa also discourages any calls for the removal of problematic materials currently on the list of non-recyclables, until there is a widely available recycling infrastructure for its output, and thereby evading more problems than this lobbying would solve.

In this minefield of potential mistakes, please make time to check in with your local Biffa waste management provider on any claims of recyclability or the bull-degradable promise of materials with nowhere to go, so we can keep you honest and connected to the first principles of a circular economy.

Because as Ellen so profoundly points out:

“What we have, is ALL we have. There is no more”

Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades

The good news is that adopting new design guidelines for a circular economy is effective, easy to follow and will unlock opportunities for growth and investment in the future. At Biffa, whilst we are focused on the key credentials of recyclability and the removal of single-use plastic, we will always future-proof our customers in avoiding the unintended consequences of a misinformed decision.

And if we can all encourage behavioural change at scale with smarter solutions, better waste management and a continued search for Closed Loops instead of Loopholes, the future will be bright – and circular!

AUTHOR: Roger Wright, Biffa’s Waste Strategy & Packaging Manager

Roger Wright

Mr Wright, is the former Marks & Spencer head of technical packaging and joined Biffa in July 2020 in a newly-created role. The company said that he will focus on working with packaging producers and Biffa’s customers to “develop more sustainable packaging”. Mr Wright, who has been at Marks & Spencer since 2011, has more than 25 years’ experience in the packaging industry with previous roles at Sainsbury’s and DS Smith.

Speaking after his appointment was announced, Mr Wright said: “Sustainable packaging solutions are clearly high on businesses’ agendas across all sectors, and working for Biffa offers an exciting opportunity to influence a huge range of businesses and brands on their packaging decisions. I look forward to working closely with Biffa’s customers to develop packaging that is innovatively smarter, recyclable and more sustainable.”


Leave a Reply

The Blog Box

Other Publications from
The Environment Media Group

Back to top