Why it pays to keep circular economy options open

Research has looked at substituting expanded polystyrene with biomaterials

As the EU’s Circular Economy Plan progresses towards full scrutiny by the European Parliament, and food and drink manufacturers ask what precisely the implications will be for their choice of packaging, innovation specialists warn against taking too narrow an approach.

Too often, ‘sustainability’ is interpreted as being purely about substituting one material with another, often without any sort of analysis to justify the change.

Richard Coles, md of consultancy Emagine Packaging, and Dr Chris Thorpe, director of Intelligent Design Associates, have investigated biomaterial alternatives to expanded polystyrene (EPS) in the fish and seafood supply chain.

This was a collaborative research study as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 programme.

“The interesting aspect to sustainable packaging is that it’s not necessarily a materials substitution issue,” said Thorpe. “You could, for example, have a more sophisticated intelligent pack system that you re-use several times.”

Biobased materials

While recognising the trend towards using biobased materials, he claimed these too posed challenges. “For example, they may be more costly and compromise the efficiency of conventional plastics recycling schemes.”

Part of the challenge is that product lifecycles can evolve over time. “In the past, large amounts of used EPS have been shipped to countries such as China for recycling,” said Coles.

“But, increasingly, the Chinese have cleaner sources of EPS much closer to home. This may pose a challenge with regard to meeting our commitments on recycling.”

Thorpe, who is also lead tutor on circular economy at the Royal College of Art, explained that the evolving circular economy presented food companies with both a need and an opportunity to embrace innovation. But that would typically require a reassessment of entire systems.

‘How packaging integrates with logistics’

Regarding bulk packaging for fish, he said: “You could treat this as a holistic design challenge, and look at everything from how the fish is farmed to where it’s sold. It is all about how the packaging integrates with the logistics, such as the use of a chill chain.”

Another challenging aspect of the evaluation process is the number of potential metrics. “Setting aside cost considerations, many returnable plastics transit systems are actively promoted over EPS or corrugated board on the basis of their reduced carbon footprint,” Coles explained.

“But although carbon is an important factor, it is only one metric, and we should also consider other ecological impact metrics such as water and pollutants.”

To those nervous at the prospect of radical, systemic change, Thorpe pointed out: “There’s no reason why you cannot take a strategic approach and plan for innovation in different stages: now, future and far future.”


What is the circular economy?

“A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.”

  • Source: Waste and Resources Action Programme

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