Having worked in a Packaging related role covering a broad range of packaging in my view it is important to differentiate buzzwords and superficial messaging from true hearted initiatives that are working hard to solve the problem from the root.
No question, the world has a waste problem, especially with plastics waste. With the convenience driven culture, with online shopping and with Covid, this is actually getting worse over time.
Definitely, the best thing we in the Packaging community can do is make ourselves obsolete: the best package is no package. Being realistic, packages serve many purposes: Aspects like hygiene, durability, CO2 footprint etc stand in sharp contrast to bulk e.g. food. Bulk food unfortunately is turning bad quicker and bottom line the food that gets thrown away as a result is not only difficult from a social perspective with people in other parts of the world starving. It is also creating a higher CO2 footprint with the food thrown away compared to that kept in a package. Paper package can be a solution, but it is important to note, that paper – especially recycled paper – does have quite a CO² footprint. Often, various sustainability aspects are not complimentary, and then a choice has to be made.
Packaging is mainly then a problem, if it ends up in landfills, in water, in the food chain, in the ocean, etc. If that can be made circular, if it can be seen as a valuable raw material and feedstock, packaging – even plastics packaging – is becoming less of an issue Key is to make this work is circularity. The true visionary in this context was the German Environment Minister Klaus Toepfer, who introduced some of the most advanced policies in the 1990’s which today are state of the art and modern and trendy today more than ever before
One challenge blocking circularity in Europe and the world today are the multiple different collection systems in European countries. Because once a system has been set up, the change cost is significant, and nobody wants to adjust to the other.
There are multiple systems, each of which have their advantages and disadvantages. Some have only 2 or 3 different waste tons, but an advanced sorting system. Others have 8 different tons and request the consumer to sort, or at least pre-sort to their best knowledge. The variety in different collection approaches in Europe blocks progress. But nobody wants to change to the other and bear the cost. But for success, scale and a unified collection and sorting and recycling system are key factors to success. I truly hope that Artificial Intelligence will soon be advanced enough to sort the different materials into a smooth circular stream.