Why does the packaging that surrounds a product become waste? The simplest reason is that there are failings in the systems which collect, sort and recycle packaging materials. In many countries, those systems are outdated or may not even exist yet.
Huhtamaki’s position is very clear – we believe waste is a valuable secondary material. To make this true across the world, incentivization, innovation, partnerships and changes in consumer behavior all play a role in making this happen. That does not mean a one-size-fits-all approach. To us, innovation across the value chain is key in ensuring packaging materials are not wasted, and the resource they represent is reused.
A wide range of developments regarding both packaging eco-design and recycling technology have emerged in recent years. However, vital recycling, collection and sorting infrastructures are less than adequate in many countries; it seems not much has moved forward in these areas in decades.
For us, packaging waste can be avoided through systemic change. Here are four ways to make sure the materials present in post-consumer packaging are not wasted and create negative impacts.
The use of EPR systems can help build a material-positive system for fit-for-purpose food packaging and will incentivize companies to do better
The first is incentivization. This calls for a more effective use of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) systems to build a material-positive system for fit-for-purpose food packaging. EPR extends the producer’s financial and/or operational responsibility for a product to include the management of the post-consumer stage, in order to help reach national or EU recycling and recovery targets[i].
For instance, one potentially good hybrid way of incentivizing packaging reuse could be to ensure that a certain share of packaging extended producer responsibility fees is invested in developing reuse systems.[ii]
Governments play a key role in fostering private sector innovation
The second is innovation encouraged by government support. A new report from Finland’s Technical Research Center (VTT) highlights those technology solutions expected to become commercially available in the next five years and says partnerships are essential to deliver the necessary technological innovations in food packaging recycling[iii]. For us, systemic change in food packaging recycling is only possible through public-private partnerships to drive innovation.
At Huhtamaki, we are committed to increasing the recyclability of our products. We integrate circularity principles into our product development and innovation process from start to finish. We guide our design process with principles that must be considered as we develop smart and low-carbon products.
Our principles related to material selection focus on the requirements of the post-consumer stage. Other areas of importance are the materials’ compatibility with existing local collection, sorting and recycling infrastructures, the availability of collection and sorting information for consumers and sufficient testing to guarantee the recyclability or compostability of the products.
Collaborating on recycling initiatives across value chains is essential
The third is collaboration. Alliances between brand owners, recycling and sorting technology developers, and waste management companies are fundamental to the development of recycling solutions. Such partnerships are essential for future investment in new recycling technology as, for instance, they provide accessibility to used material on the one hand and a potential user for the recyclates on the other.
In our view, collaboration can make a real difference. It is important that solutions are appropriate to local conditions and scalable. We aim to find the best possible value chain partners to work with to create tangible impact.
For example, we have begun a pilot together with Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Costa Coffee in the UK that involves the watermarking of paper cups to follow up the recycling of our packaging. We have also participated in anti-littering campaigns to raise consumer awareness in the UK along with the Glasgow Cup Movement, Square Mile Challenge and Neat Streets with Hubbub. In the United States, we have supported the activities of the Food Packaging Institute's Paper Cup Alliance.
Changes in consumer behavior must become a reality
The fourth involves changes in consumer behavior to ensure recycling is not just eco-friendly but the easy solution for us all. We at Huhtamaki acknowledge that the actual level of recycling, composting and reuse depends not just on local recycling infrastructure. Its overall improvement also hinges on the willingness of consumers to participate in recycling schemes.
Boosting recycling rates, therefore, requires more than just the technical development of waste management systems. Implementing strategies to promote the role of citizens in driving recycling is also key. The best way for recyclers to improve collection is for consumers to separate their used plastic packaging from other forms of waste and to separate within types of plastics. Efforts to educate and empower the consumer to reduce contamination and mixing is a worthwhile investment.
Preventing materials becoming waste requires those materials to be prepared for reuse, which calls for more and better recycling. We believe that they should be recognized as valuable secondary materials, which in a resource-strapped world can play an important role in supporting raw material supply.
[i] Extended Producer Responsibility, EUROPEN
[ii] The many challenges on the path to better regulation, Huhtamaki Think Circle
[iii] Recycling food packaging, VTT and Huhtamaki