Reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 calls for a revision in the way we use energy and natural resources and how we are able to create a circular economy today – as businesses, as governments, as individuals. This will not happen on its own. Innovation, investment and political commitment are key for making circular economy a reality. We must also foster a new culture of cooperation, where the best solutions lead the way.
For industry, designing for circularity remains a serious challenge, especially where structural gaps – such as the lack of common infrastructures – exist. This is particularly true for the packaging sector and dealing with these gaps must begin with an acknowledgment of the need for a systemic transition from a linear to a circular approach, where products are not just recyclable but they are actually recycled. As this paradigm shift affects all sectors and policy domains, we must join forces to develop and provide the most effective solutions together – in Europe, and on a global level.
This is no easy task. To succeed, we must ensure that what we do is based on science and facts. A good example is the issue of plastic waste, which is a serious environmental problem worldwide. Plastic is crucial for so many essential products and applications, such as in medicine, but its longevity brings about challenges at the waste disposal stage. As a result, we are seeing many governments tackle the situation by implementing rapid bans for certain single-use products that contain plastic.
But in reality, plastic is crucial to our world when used in the right way: what we are dealing with are the very visible failures in the end-of-life management of products made from plastic. These would be better handled through a combined effort of material innovation and efficient end-of-life management. So instead of concentrating on the life span of a product, we should be paying closer attention to what these products are made of – and how the materials themselves can be recycled and then reused. We should also not be afraid to recognize that what works in one country or region of the world might not immediately work in another. There are differences between nations reflecting size, population density, actual infrastructures and levels of economic development.
This focus on materials is, we firmly believe, a crucial part of the equation for systemic change. For businesses, innovation is the key to unlocking the competitive sustainable solutions needed to create a circular economy for the materials used to make packaging, reduce our carbon footprint and ensure resource efficiency.
While we must be bold in our vision and set clear goals on where we want to go, we must also remember that much innovation is incremental and disruptive innovation often requires significant time and investment. When seeking the most environmentally ambitious and viable solutions, we must take into account the entire life cycle of products and create circular business models that ensure the optimal use of our global resources while maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction.
At the outset, we see four key elements to driving the necessary change:
1. An infrastructure revolution
We need to understand where gaps exist in each country’s current infrastructure related to circularity – such as waste labelling and collection, and end-of-life management – then introduce policies and mechanisms to bridge these gaps and provide waste management and recycling systems that meet the needs of the 21st century. Material charges can prove to be good incentives, but we should also look at enhanced producer responsibility and new forms of ownership of materials.
2. Empowering transformative innovation
We must ensure that policies support continued innovation and competitive sustainability by creating a framework which provides incentives for innovation that will help us to deliver the Green Deal. Instead of picking the winners, policymakers should set clear directions to drive efficiencies and lower carbon. By using Life Cycle Thinking to assess the true impact of regulatory and legislative proposals, policymakers can also help embed outcome-focused policy design.
3. Incentivizing consumers to change
Circular business models should incentivize consumers to reuse, repair and recycle – for example, by ensuring that doing so offers them better quality products and services. In addition, education and inspiration are powerful tools that policymakers and business alike should use to end littering and pollution.
4. Science-led policy making
By ensuring facts and evidence are the foundation for consumer-behaviour, decision-making and regulation, we are far more likely to deliver the best environmental outcomes. We firmly believe we need enabling regulation founded on scientific evidence and facts, which supports and stimulates innovation
If we are to succeed, we need to be pragmatic and work together, agnostic of technology, material or sector. No one organization can do this alone. We must work with one another across the value chain and look at what actions are required in each region or country to enable efficient material use and to ensure that end-of-life solutions are not only attainable but more importantly, sustainable. We should create general conditions for circular businesses to flourish so that looking at each industry individually and creating rules per sector – whether for packaging, car parts or electronics, for example – becomes unnecessary.
The issue is not about single- or multi-use, but about raw materials. To deliver a truly systemic shift, we need to keep our eyes on the big picture. We need to base ourselves on the science and the expertise of those that, working together, can make a difference.
Now is the time for change. Industry and policymakers must come together to build the platforms that enable both value-chain and cross-value-chain working; and which are themselves linked to the organizations and mechanisms which policymakers have established. By using science, innovation and investment in a public-private partnership we can deliver the best solutions for people and the planet, starting today.