We talk a lot about the ‘circular economy’, but what does that mean in practice? And how does it relate to reducing our use of resources when it comes to packaging, in particular?
A key concept of the circular economy is the closing of ‘material loops’. This means instead of extracting new resources in order to create new products for consumption, we reuse materials we already have. This is part of a decoupling of economic development from resource extraction, recognising that reliance on the extraction of fundamentally finite resources is inherently unsustainable. According to the UN’s International Resource Panel, total resource extraction has tripled in the past 50 years and is likely to double again by 2050, with significant consequences for our environment. Reusing materials and products as many times as possible reduces the need for primary materials (ones that haven’t been used before) and as long as the loops are closed in a sustainable way, with minimal energy needed, it also reduces the environmental footprint of materials use. However, there’s a large gap to be bridged: the Circle Economy’s Circularity Gap Report states that less than 10% of our resources are currently recovered to be reused.
Packaging is the biggest user of primary materials. In Europe, 40% of virgin plastic and 50% of virgin paper is used for packaging. In all countries, there’s been a trend towards single-use packaging, with the goal of simplifying logistics for (particularly large) product distributors and retailers. Another contributing trend has been the move towards smaller portions of products, which are better suited by single-use packaging. This has been done without any accompanying strict legislation on reuse.
In the past, much of reducing the environmental impact of packaging has focused on making packaging more lightweight, and on recycling. The benefit of reusing, rather than recycling, is that the functionality of a material is retained: a bottle stays a bottle, rather than being melted down into its component plastic or glass to be remade. This process often transforms a material into a lower-grade product, meaning value is lost from the original material. Recycling has its own associated emissions costs, and then there’s the increasingly prevalent concern that our recycling doesn’t get recycled at all, but instead dumped on less well-off countries who are beginning to take action and send it back. Overall, reusable packaging is recognised as being the more efficient option when it comes to reducing the volume of packaging materials and production emissions. There is the potential for improvement: it is estimated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that up to 20% of plastic packaging could be replaced by reusable systems.
Reusable packaging is not new. Particularly in ‘business to business’ (B2B) trade reusable packaging is frequently used, including crates and pallets that are reused many times. We have a stack of crates that produce from local farms, such as Wild Country Organic or James Foskett Farms, arrives in, and these are returned to the farms each week to be filled with more produce for future deliveries. Waterland Organic reuse boxes that come in from our wholesale suppliers to pack some of their bulkier items such as cabbages. Similarly, our pallets are either collected by one of our local farms or by a company that redistributes the pallets for reuse. It is ‘business to customer’ (B2C) trade that lags behind when it comes to the reuse of packaging.
Refill and ‘zero waste’ shops are part of the drive to reduce our overall packaging consumption through the reuse of materials. In Cambridge, we have retailers such as Full Circle Shop, Daily Bread, and Radmore Farm Shop that all promote zero-waste shopping, where the customer brings in their own packaging that can be filled with a product and then refilled again at a later date. Whilst the experience may be zero-waste for the customer, the bulk supplies that come in to these retailers involve packaging themselves, and so for a truly ‘zero-waste’ supply chain it is important that this bulk packaging can also be returned for reuse. Full Circle Shop, whose emphasis is exactly on ‘closed-loop’ solutions, receive deliveries from companies such as Miniml (who do cleaning and personal care refill products) where the pallet of bulk packaging can be returned to the supplier to be refilled. Their deliveries even feature reusable pallet netting instead of the dreaded plastic pallet wrap, which is the inevitable bane of any company looking to reduce its waste.
This doesn’t mean that switching to reusable packaging is without problems. Within the food industry we have to consider aspects such as: the cleaning of packaging; food safety concerns regarding reused packaging (for example with regards to products such as eggs); potential increased transport movements; and complex ‘reverse’ logistics associated with returning packaging for reuse. In other words, how do we get the packaging back to the supplier? Storage is also an issue, as packaging is likely to be waiting in warehouses at least some of the time before it is returned for reuse. This is of course better than in landfill, where it might otherwise be. A lot of these issues depend on the material being returned and the supply chain it is part of.
So what can make reusable packaging viable? Short supply chains and transport distances are key. If you have fewer steps in a supply chain and less distance to travel, it is much easier to get the packaging back to the supplier where it can be reused. The return rates of packaging make a difference, as enough needs to be returned to make the transport and logistics worthwhile, as does the expense of cleaning packaging, and the labour involved in these steps.
At Cambridge Organic (our retail organic veg box service), we have direct trading relationships with a number of our producers, including Fen End, Totally Cultured, and our local honey producers. As this includes us collecting or having deliveries directly from them, it is easy for us to return packaging from customers for reuse. Heather of Fen End is in fact one of our customers, making the process even more simple! All packaging needs to be cleaned before it is reused. We reuse the produce boxes we get in as our boxes for packing, and ask customers to return these until they can’t be reused any longer. In contrast, packaging that has a longer supply chain, such as coming through a wholesaler, is much more difficult to reuse.
The Food Hub aims to support a circular economy by promoting exactly the things that make reuse more viable. By encouraging shorter supply chains we hope to make it easier for packaging to return to suppliers for reuse. By better connecting businesses and taking a view that all resources are valuable, whether or not someone would currently pay for them, we hope to find new uses for materials that might otherwise be thrown away. One thing we’d like to see is more standardised packaging: it’s a lot easier to promote reuse if packaging is the same (size, shape, etc.) across different companies and products. Whilst this would have its own difficulties, the largest one likely being that it goes against the relentless desire for endless choice and differentiation, the whole point of the Food Hub is to practice concepts that we hope could be applied to a wider system.
Ultimately, of course, reducing our consumption of resources is the best way to limit our impact on the environment. However, if we accept that certain materials and items are needed, such as containers for food, then the next best thing we can do is ensure we reuse the ones we have as many times as we can. As part of the food industry, we should also try to promote systems that make these kind of processes as easy as possible.