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Top 9 Sustainable Packaging Trends

The strongest trends in the packaging industry all revolve around a circular economy. Why? At least in the European Union, it’s driven primarily by political pressure and consumer perception regarding packaging. China (and now India) are closing their doors to waste, environmental groups are lobbying to stop plastic pollution in the oceans, and the EU continues to strengthen its resource protectionism.

These developments are at the heart of the EU’s decision to embrace a circular economy. Its simple and easy-to-love code relies on the same three words that defined the environmental movement in the ’80s and ’90s: reduce, reuse, recycle. However, now the EU is passing regulations faster than usual, including regulations to increase recycling rates and recycled content and laws to reduce single-use plastics. As a result, manufacturers are rushing to reach their own quotas and targets, scrambling to solve a puzzle whose edges are still ill-defined. Here we want to provide our views on current trends to draw attention to the potential shortcomings of each and offer suggestions for tackling them.

Design for Recycling

Design for RecyclingMore recycling is, of course, a great development. The question is how to enable a net positive effect on the environment and the economy. In order to be recycled, post-consumer packaging has to fulfill a long list of requirements (e.g., separability, cleanliness, labeling and coloration). Manufacturers trying to fulfill those requirements may have to use more material and energy when they produce the packaging than they have done up until now.

Additionally, just because a packaging product is designed for recycling today does not automatically mean that it will be recycled. And even if it is recycled, the environmental footprint may not be improved. Most recycling technologies currently require a lot of energy and the quality of the recovered material is lower than virgin material. Hence, the designed packaging often has a less-than-desirable net impact on the environment. And this doesn’t even include the effects of having less feedstock for incinerators to recover energy from.

Designing for recycling is certainly imperative to future-proof one’s business, our economy and humanity itself. But first we need to ensure recyclability equals recycling, preferably in a closed-loop system.

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