Circular Economy: Separating Fact from Fiction and How Consumer Packaging is Evolving

Liz Bothwell, Head of Content & Marketing

October 13, 2021

4 Min Read
Visual Generation/Getty Images

Stifel recently hosted its first ESG & Impact Summit on “Circular Economy: Separating Fact from Fiction and How Consumer Packaging is Evolving.” The conversation covered the evolution of consumer packaging and the challenges facing all the constituents, namely: the need to improve the reuse and recycling of consumer packaging to empower a truly Circular Economy.

The panelists for the session included: Brent Heist, Director R&D Packaging Sustainability at Procter and Gamble; Peter Keller, VP recycling & sustainability at Republic Services, Inc.; and Craig Slavtcheff, EVP chief R&D and innovation officer at Campbell Soup.

Moderator Michael E. Hoffman set the stage by asking, “How do we move a legacy model into a true circular model where you are capturing and actually reusing this packaging?” And, “What does the market need to understand about a redesign of the concept of conventional packaging into something that truly can be circular?” Slavtcheff noted that these questions parallel Campbell’s packaging sustainability initiative that was updated in 2020. The initiative’s four goals address packaging design and material selection within the context of lifecycle and end-of-life. “This was a massive shift we took; prior to that we were focused only on reducing the amount of packaging generated.” But, “if you don’t create the demand for post-consumer recycled content, you can have lots of packaging recycled, but if you’re not using that material and creating a stream for it, then it’s all for naught. Likewise, you have to educate consumers.”

Heist talked about how the primary role of packaging is to protect the product and the consumer. So, “it is not a simple task to change packaging to make sure it is circular. It takes a lot of innovation and collaboration across the industry.” Slavtcheff elaborated that, “another key part of this is your partnership with your own supply chain. Many changes in packaging design have significant impacts to how our supply chain works, not only in manufacturing but also in warehousing and distribution—so it’s a holistic approach.”

Hoffman asked Keller to weigh in on whether changes being made on the consumer side are fitting in with the existing infrastructure for recovering material and getting it back into the reuse stream. Keller noted that a lot of today’s plastic food packaging (particularly of the flexible and multi-layered varieties) causes challenges in today’s curbside program. “So we’re trying to figure out ways we could aggregate that at the curb and ultimately separate it and bring it to market—but we haven’t cracked that code yet.” But, as for rigid plastics, “as long as that material ends up in the blue bin, we’re able to separate and aggregate it, and bring it to market.”

Hoffman noted that recycled content generally costs brands more, and he asked if there is a willingness to pay. Heist said that, “We’re trying to disconnect our decisions about sustainability from that one-for-one tradeoff, so we’re doing what we call holistic innovation. We’re not just changing the packaging composition; we’re looking at the brand and what it delivers to the consumer and what consumer expect across all of their touch points with our products and packaging. When you start asking what is it that our consumer wants, and how can we build sustainability into that, you start to find opportunities where a little bit more cost in the packaging can be made up for somewhere else.”

The speakers also discussed how to drive improvement in defined content commitments; the role of the consumer—and advertising—in driving the circular economy; regulatory considerations; extended producer responsibility; and more.

Stifel’s formal observations based on the session are as follows:

1. Consumer products leaders are committed to true reuse of packaging.

a. Challenges include supply, safety, quality (breakage/damage), shipping/distribution.

b. Broader content commitments with deadlines are still needed.

2. Curbside collection and MRF processing can meet the demands of the changes in packaging.

a. At the curbside consumer education is paramount to focus on what is reusable/recyclable (Circular) - reduce undue contamination.

b. MRF investments are being made to modernize and therefore successfully pull out quality reusable materials.

3. Regulation can help drive more content commitments but can also exacerbate supply challenges.

a. CA AB-793 would mean virtually 100% of the addressable reusable plastics would go to California to meet the criteria of the legislation.

b. EPR does not improve circularity, it may improve assurance of the financial viability of a residential recycling program.

4. The conversation was all about plastics, which account for 7% by weight and about 15% by volume of recovered materials for reuse.

a. 85% to 95% by weight for economical reuse are Fiber (paper) and Metals (used cans aluminum and steel)

i. Ongoing development of domestic production capacity relying on recovered fiber and cans.

ii. Glass is in this mix too but has fewer economically viable reuse options.

Solid waste is committed to viable recycling that supports a circular economy. It is prepared to supply the capital required for a reasonable return on the invested capital to successfully capture recoverable materials and process/separate to produce a high-quality feedstock for reuse in the production of boxes, cans, bottles and packaging.


About the Author(s)

Liz Bothwell

Head of Content & Marketing, Waste360

Liz Bothwell is head of content and marketing for Waste360, proud host of the NothingWasted! Podcast, and ghostwrites for others to keep her skills sharp and creative juices flowing. She loves family, football, her French bulldogs, and telling stories that can help to make the world a more sustainable place.

Follow her on Linkedin or Twitter

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